Read a few of today’s post-speech analyses of President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union and it will be hard to avoid phrases like “valedictory” and “victory lap,” indicating that the man who rode a promise to change the country to two terms as president has, at least on some fronts, succeeded. But dive a little deeper — into those postmortems, into the speech itself and into South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s GOP response too — and questions start to bubble up: What does victory look like? And who is it, exactly, who’s winning?
“I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air,” said Obama toward the middle of Tuesday’s speech. “Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. Period. It’s not even close.”
That rhetoric might be hot air, but the president didn’t pull it out of thin air. The passage, along with several others about the strength and optimism of the United States, was widely read as a rebuff to the grandiloquence of Donald Trump, the front-runner in the Republican race to succeed Obama. Trump, who often campaigns wearing a red baseball cap that reads “Making America great again,” has gained much traction this election cycle with stories about how the U.S. is being beaten by Japan or outsmarted by Mexico or how the muscle of Russia or China has given those countries primacy in diplomacy and trade.
“Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office,” was the response from the president. “And when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead. They call us.”
He then urged his audience — which could easily be seen as this year’s potential voters — to “set a level,” to view the country’s current challenges in context, “because when we don’t, we don’t make good decisions.” The president acknowledged this was “a dangerous time” but stressed it was “certainly not because of diminished American strength.”
To demonstrate the point, he took several turns boasting of U.S. military might, praising the thousands upon thousands of airstrikes against territory under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and reminding everyone of the fate of the country’s previous top nemesis.
“If you doubt America’s commitment or mine to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden,” Obama said.
The speech also challenged the xenophobic tone of Trump’s campaign — and of the other Republican hopefuls trying to outflank him — making references to immigrants turned entrepreneurs and the ethnic and religious diversity of the U.S. populace. “We need to reject any politics, any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” said Obama.
Quoting Pope Francis, who addressed Congress from the same lectern last year, Obama said, “To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
“When politicians insult Muslims,” he continued, after citing examples, “that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not ... telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Obama’s ruminations on American diversity and recriminations on political discourse were echoed in the GOP response to his speech. Haley was considered a tea party insurgent when first elected governor in 2010. But she is also the daughter of Indian immigrants and so, without naming Trump directly, took time in her speech to challenge the nativist tones in Republican campaigns.
“My story is really not much different from millions of other Americans’,” said Haley, who noted that when she was growing up, her family didn’t look much like her rural, Southern neighbors. “Immigrants have been coming to our shores for generations to live the dream that is America.”
But she then added a note of caution, saying, “Today we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”
"No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country,” she said.
Those words excited many analysts in the traditional media, who quickly dubbed Haley the obvious front-runner in the GOP veepstakes — but that speech sounded very different to conservative commentators in her party. “GOP self-loathing,” tweeted Amanda Carpenter, who worked as an adviser to presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham tweeted that Haley and Obama should have “appeared together” and that the governor’s attack on Trump was “not smart.”
Those critical reactions to her speech underscore a division that has been roiling Republicans since long before the current presidential contest. But it also shows just how much the ever-escalating rhetoric of the Trump campaign — and of all the candidates hoping to overtake it — has altered the national conversation.
One need only contrast the biographies of Haley, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (Jindal and Rubio delivered the GOP response to Obama in years past) with Trump’s diatribes against immigrants and immigration. While the party establishment seems to believe that Republicans compete best with Democrats when the GOP demonstrates diversity among its ranks, a “populist fever” (as Ingraham praised it) has rejected that big tent logic and made the most persistently anti-immigration and anti-establishment candidates the leaders on the Republican side of the 2016 race.
Jindal attempted a run for president this cycle but dropped out after barely registering in opinion polls. Rubio, though still considered among the top four or five GOP contenders, has stumbled after trading barbs with Cruz over who would be tougher on undocumented immigrants. Haley may be considered a possible running mate for the eventual Republican presidential nominee — but not if that nominee is Trump.
But even if the political palette is more blue than red, even if the time frame is no broader than the hour or so Obama spent with Congress on Tuesday, the Trump effect is still as bracing as a Chicago snowstorm blowing in off Lake Michigan.
Sure, there were other parts to the president’s final speech in the House chamber, important parts about acknowledging climate change and promoting alternative energy, about helping hardworking Americans and regulating big banks, about expanding access to health care and finding a cure for cancer and about the persistent polarization that has thwarted Obama’s attempts to realize many of those goals. But it is that polarization, exacerbated by gerrymandered electoral districts and unregulated campaign cash — two other problems the president urged the country to address — that has given rise to the dysfunction in Washington. And that, in turn, has given rise to growing anger with the establishment in both political parties.
And that anger has fueled the rise of candidate Trump.
So, while the president laid claim to great progress — real change — on many fronts, his attention to what he called, quoting Abraham Lincoln, “the dogmas of the quiet past” raise questions about whether change is the same as success.
Obama appeared at great pains to remind the nation to observe what in the past seemed to go with out saying: to trust science, participate in fair and open elections and treat their neighbors, no matter their origins, with civility and compassion.
But in a climate in which a presidential legacy can be so easily blown off course by the hot air of one presidential hopeful, the real state of the union seems to have gone where the wind takes it — in this case, toward campaign rhetoric.