Obama’s last State of the Union big on legacy, not policy

Obama’s last State of the Union big on legacy, not policy

In his eighth and final State of the Union address, President Obama did not shy away from touting his 7-year legacy. However, he ultimately called for broad bipartisan solutions to pressing economic and security challenges for not only his last year, but well beyond.

With this week’s State of the Union, the Obama presidency entered its final year in typical Obama fashion: a blend of no-nonsense, technocratic optimism with a lament of ever-increasing DC gridlock. Yet behind the rhetorical flourishes was a very un-State of the Union presidential address that was short on concrete legislative proposals but rife with setting the future American agenda, particularly on economic and security issues.

In a more relaxed, informal style, Obama laid out three questions the world’s largest economy must answer – how to ensure economic security, how to harness technology, and how to strike a balance between keeping the US safe and building foreign capacity – along with a fourth that will have a great impact on how its divided executive and legislative chambers will be able to tackle the first three: how to transform America’s increasingly polarized political system.

These four “big questions” hearkened back to FDR’s iconic “Four Freedoms” State of the Union address in 1941. Yet unlike his Democratic forerunner, whose sweeping reforms have more than occasionally served as comparisons, Obama at times felt consigned to admit his failure at developing the bipartisan compromises which he often espoused throughout his presentation.

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 remarked.

There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”

Nevertheless, the background given and solutions offered to the speech’s broad themes were unsurprising.

The economic recovery

On the post-recession recovery, Obama channeled his inner wonk and emphasized that nearly 14 million new jobs were created in the US in the last 70 months, the unemployment rate has been halved (since its high point in October 2009), and the auto industry has just concluded its best year ever, all while budget deficits have been cut by three-quarters.

Word cloud for Obama's State of the Union speech

Word cloud for Obama’s State of the Union speech

The one notable exception, expanded tax cuts for childless low-income workers, was a clear olive branch to Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and possibly a portent of bipartisan legislation to come.

Embracing new technologies

When it came to sparking innovation, the President pulled no punches.

Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” Obama noted, in a wisecrack aimed at climate change deniers.

We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget.”

But even here, Obama tried to bridge his party’s differences with the GOP by appealing to the need for US companies to be able to “produce and sell the energy of the future” and safeguard high-paying American jobs, regardless of politicians’ beliefs on global warming.

Indeed, Obama seemed to relish pointing out that foreign oil imports have dropped by 60%, solar energy firms now employ more Americans than the coal industry, and a budding coalition of environmentalists and Tea Partyers was forming to ensure homeowners could generate and store their own energy.

In addition, in one of the evening’s more memorable moments, the President gave Vice President Joe Biden the reigns of “mission control” in a new initiative to fight cancer, which last year claimed the life of Biden’s son. It also came three months after Biden called for a “moonshot” to cure cancer, which Obama explicitly referred to.

Security issues

Perhaps the most contentious part of the address came when addressing national security.

On a day when ten US sailors were detained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf, Obama made an impassioned plea for supporting some of his administration’s biggest foreign policy planks: targeting the leadership of ISIS and AL-Qaeda-affiliated groups without physically occupying territory, backing the Iranian nuclear accord, and expanding Washington’s overtures to Cuba. He termed this “a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of [US] national power.”

Republican boos when Obama claimed that America’s enemies were not getting stronger at its own expense were to be expected. Less so was the applause that occurred when the President pointed out that the US spends more on its military than the next eight nations combined.

Yet it was hard to shake the feeling that many of his remarks were directly aimed at the Republican contenders for commander-in-chief: Obama accusing those who claim World War III is near (Chris Christie) of emboldening terrorists, scoffing at claims of carpet-bombing civilians (Ted Cruz), and severely chastising attempts at dividing Americans by race or religion (Donald Trump).

One more year to go

If the substance of what was essentially Obama’s valedictory address was largely unsurprising, the weight given to a few of the topics was. Gun violence, the minimum wage, and immigration – some of the biggest issues of the day – only garnered one sentence each.

What, then, to expect from Obama’s final year in office?

It seems clear that the President, lame duck or not, will continue to advocate for several of the policies he proudly mentioned early on in his speech: a more hands-on science and technology curriculum for students, more personalized medical treatments for patients, and more paid sick leave for workers.

However, major economic and security problems undoubtedly remain. Wage growth is slow. The labor force participation rate is remarkably low. And instability from Benghazi to Baghdad (as well as the refugee/migrant influx it gives rise to) does not seem to be abating in spite of military action by the US and its allies across the Middle East and North Africa.

Even if it wasn’t an election year, this would be a handful for a President facing an opposition-controlled Congress.

It would not be entirely surprising to see Obama try to cement his legacy with a final major policy push (or two). But more likely is the low-hanging fruit for which Democrats will have an easier time gaining Republican approval, some of which the President mentioned: moderate criminal justice reform, combating prescription drug abuse, tackling the gender pay gap, increasing funding for a malaria vaccine,  expanded retraining programs for laid-off workers, and ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Much of the rest will have to wait.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Kevin Amirehsani

Kevin is a Denver-based policy and public engagement consultant. He was previously the head of operations for a solar energy startup in Lagos, researcher for the US Commercial Service in Cape Town and the Institute for Democratic Governance in Accra, and Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. He holds an MSc. in International Political Economy from LSE along with a B.S. and B.A. in Industrial Engineering and Political Science from UC Berkeley.