In his last State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama called on his fellow citizens not to give in to fear, particularly of the Islamic State.
There are many ways in which the United States can be perceived today. On Tuesday evening, in his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama wanted to defend his vision — optimistic, ambitious and confident.
In his one-hour monologue to Congress, he emphasized his country’s power. “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth. Period,” the president, who was speaking confidently and seemed to be enjoying the moment, chose to remind us. Certainly, the times are “dangerous,” but this doesn’t mean that the United States is less powerful or threatened by the rise of another entity, the president stated.
This was a way to defuse the fears that have been stirred up by various presidential election candidates — portraying a weakened country in decline — in particular Donald Trump, who is leading the polls for the Republican Party and who has campaigned with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” This is also a way to respond to those fears inherent in society, shown by a recent CNN survey in which 40 percent of Americans stated that they believed the United States and its allies were losing the war against terrorism.
“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,” Obama said.
For Obama, this speech offered the opportunity to define the terms of the presidential campaign, which is less than two weeks away from its kick-off with the Iowa caucuses. This speech, one of the last times he will be the focus of the media in this election year, was not based on a list of measures he wanted to adopt before the end of his term. Instead, it focused on his vision of history and a defense of his time in office.
One of the main features of his term has been a strong economy. The unemployment rate has reached 5 percent, which is less than half the number after the 2008 financial crisis. The job machine has bounced back, with the high rates of job creation not seen since the 1990s. Obama also congratulated himself on the healthy U.S. industry, with its revitalized automobile sector. However, he recognized that sections of the population had not benefited from the effects of this rebound. “For the past seven years, our goal has been a growing economy that also works better for everybody. We’ve made progress, but we need to make more,” the president vowed.
Obama also reminded us of the strong points of his term: the promotion of renewable energies; student loan reform; recognition of the right to gay marriage throughout the United States; introduction of Obama’s health care law, which gave 18 million Americans access to health insurance, and reduced cost inflation in this sector. Concerning foreign policy, he spoke favorably of U.S. leadership, mentioning the elimination of bin Laden, the nuclear agreement with Iran, the political opening toward Cuba, the fight against the Ebola virus, and the U.S. role in the Paris COP21 agreements.*
However, Obama also recognized his main failure of not having been the unifying president, rising above individual parties, at which his first campaign had hinted. By his own admission, Washington has never been as divided, as polarized. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency, that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama stated. And he went on to highlight issues that plague American politics: the influence of money and lobbies in the campaigns; arrangements to reshape voting precincts; and efforts dissuade certain voters from voting.
The magazine Politico summed it up this way, “The most obvious thing that Obama hasn’t done is to generate a new wave of enthusiasm for the government or the Democratic Party. He was re-elected with a comfortable margin, but the Republicans have won back a majority in the two houses, and have won an enormous number of seats in the state houses, surfing on a powerful wave of hostility against the federal government.”**
Obama knows it well. This is why he called on Americans not to give in to the temptation of finding scapegoats — Muslims, Mexican immigrants, Syrian refugees — to explain, as Trump has, the country’s evils. He also tried to address all those who were disappointed in politics: “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 our actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.”
*Editor’s note: COP21 stands for Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
**Editor’s note: This quote, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.