In his final State of the Union address, the president opposed his optimistic view of the U.S. to the pessimistic assessment of the candidates to succeed him.
President Obama has 373 days left to convince Americans that his two terms have turned the U.S. into a country that is economically stronger, more respected in the world, and whose security is not at risk, including from outside enemies, like the Daesh Islamists. The president knew that his eighth State of the Union address, a kind of institutional and solemn road map that the incumbent in the White House has to yield to, was one of his last opportunities to be heard by his fellow citizens. Indeed, the campaign for who will succeed him will really start in two weeks with the beginning of the primaries, and it looks like it will be more controversial and polemical than usual, to the point of rendering the president, who is already a "lame duck,” inaudible until the end of his term.
This is probably why Obama chose first to describe the U.S. that, during his presidency, has regained its dynamic growth, its development, with 14 million jobs created; its debt has decreased, it has better Social Security coverage, and it is not threatened by anyone, he says. In short, “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period.” But, more surprisingly and, according to someone close to him, Obama used this flattering picture to transform part of his State of the Union speech into “a speech on the presidential campaign.” By getting involved in the electoral game of the moment, the president may have shown that he was more affected than it seems by the contrast between his vision of the U.S. during his presidency and the description of it made by the candidates to succeed him, both Republicans and Democrats. Because, if Hillary Clinton is an exception, even her Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, has been constantly criticizing a country where inequalities have increased and where average Americans do not benefit from the return of growth. By the way, this is an accusation that seems to be profitable to him since, according to the polls, he is leading the race, surpassing the former first lady in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in the primaries.
'Masses of Fighters on the Back of Pickup Trucks, Twisted Souls'
But it is obviously at the Republican candidates that the president launched his harshest attacks — particularly against the excesses of Donald Trump. Even if by taking advantage of this much institutionalized tribune to engage in some politicking, he did not go as far as to quote him or any other Republican candidate. “There will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.” This was an obvious allusion to Trump’s proposals to ban Muslim entry into the U.S. or to build walls along the borders.
He also focused on Marco Rubio and Ben Carson and all those who, like them, would like to go back to the good old America of the past: “It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless, and the problem is all the folks who are elected don't care, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. (…) Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”
Finally, the president, commander-in-chief, denounced those who would think that their country is less safe today than it was when George Bush passed it over to him: “It is wrong to say that we have entered World War III or that we have to answer to the threats by the carpet bombings.”* And Obama closed this chapter by making fun of those who, like the other Republican candidates — the likes of Ted Cruz or Chris Christie — are calling for a stronger military action against the Islamic State. “Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages — they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell.”
In short, Obama’s last speech was as an autosuggestion, magnifying the successes, and there were some, but minimizing the fact that during his presidency the U.S. has shown many weaknesses and inaction in its foreign policy. It is not certain that, in this period of elections, he managed to convince his fellow citizens of the merits of his presidency — those citizens who, according to a recent poll, were two out of three in thinking that their country is on a bad path today.
*Editor's Note: This quote has been paraphrased. The original quote reads, "But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. (...) Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians."