international analysis and commentary

The 2016 State of the Union: Obama’s legacy and the future


In his final State of the Union address, an upbeat US President Barack Obama looked far into the future while circling back to the past, to his winning campaign message from eight years ago of “change we can believe in. To do so, he largely, if not entirely, departed from the standard laundry-list format and stiff delivery style that are typical of the President’s annual speech to the joint session of Congress: “For this final one, I’m going to try to make it shorter” – he said. And then added, in the first of several more or less subtle references to the ongoing Presidential campaign: “I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa”.

Not that he forgot to mention the most important achievements of his last seven years in office. He peppered them throughout the speech, reminding the audience of the economic recovery, of his signature healthcare reform, of gay marriage being legalized across the country, of successful trade deal negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and so on (as a result the speech ended up being longer than last year’s). With what many observers understood as a jab at Donald Trump, the President said, “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” And to those who attack him on national security, he retorted: “If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden.”

But Obama also looked ahead, even beyond the end of his presidency. “I don’t want to talk just about the next year. I want to focus on the next five years, ten years, and beyond. I want to focus on our future,” he said. With this in mind, he invited Americans of all walks of life to tap into the reservoir of energy, creativity and generosity that has made the US what it is today. He asked them to embrace the many ongoing transformations of this rapidly shifting world, at the level of the economy, technological innovation, national security, and democracy itself. He insisted this is the only way to shape the future in a way that benefits the people of this country rather than hurting them. “We live in a time of extraordinary change,” the President said. “And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”

Most of Obama’s speech was, therefore, dedicated to his broad vision of a fair, innovative, secure and united America. But the President also put a number of very specific demands to this defiant Congress. For example, that it passes his plan of two years of free college tuition for all students; that it authorizes the use of military force against ISIS; that it ratifies the TPP.

Overall, the President called for strengthening America’s economy by way of more education for its people, of a stronger social safety net, and of a more level playing field. These are crucial to ensure that US workers can succeed even in the face of rising income inequality, and of technology that “doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated.”

Obama then pointed to this country’s entrepreneurial, can-do attitude as the key to harness innovation to the US’s advantage, for the betterment of society as well as of the bottom line. “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” he said with a not so veiled allusion to climate change deniers. “We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.” Now, the same “spirit of discovery” should be put to use to tackle the greatest challenges of our era. Here the President announced a new initiative to find the definitive cure for cancer and renewed efforts to combat climate change and engender a new “clean energy revolution” (with all the business opportunities that go with it).

Obama was perhaps the most buttoned-up on national security and foreign policy, with his speech coming as it did amidst growing fears over global terrorism, rising tensions with Russia, mounting worries about China and continued instability across the Middle East. Nevertheless, the president hit back against those who claim that the global influence of the US has bee waning under his watch. “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period,” he said. “It’s not even close.” Though recognizing the fight against terrorist networks like al Qaeda and ISIS as “priority number one,” Obama attempted to defuse what he considers an unnecessarily incendiary debate on the issue. “They do not threaten our national existence,” he said. He then went on to defend his “patient and disciplined strategy”, based on the premise that “America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.” This, he said, is the approach that has succeeded in the fight against Ebola, in resuming diplomatic relationship with Cuba and in sealing the nuclear deal with Iran, and which is already in motion in Syria.

Finally, Obama hit a sour note and expressed regret, “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better” during his presidency. He pledged to continue to try and bridge this divide, and applauded the new House Speaker, Republican Paul Ryan, for having worked with Democrats in Congress to pass a budget at the end of last year. “We just might surprise the cynics again,” Obama said. But, he added, more is needed, and “I can’t do these things on my own.” The opportunity to really change the system, reduce the influence of big money, make it easier for more people to vote, and make Congress more representative of the country as a whole, “will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you.”

Armed with their optimism and work ethic, spirit of discovery and innovation, diversity and commitment to the rule of law, Obama’s Americans are “clear-eyed” and “big-hearted”. And they – the factory worker “who clocks extra shifts”, the young immigrant “who stays up late to finish her science project”, the dedicated soldier “who gives almost everything to save his brothers” – can “face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together”.

This President that has been so allergic to the idea of being a lame-duck, a nearly irrelevant background figure in this election year, sought on January 12 to remain center-stage for just a bit longer. He did so by projecting himself and his ideas well past the end of his presidency. And by ending his last State of the Union address at the beginning, where it all started nearly a decade ago. “I believe in change because I believe in you,” Obama said.

The one that the President depicted was perhaps a rosier picture of the years ahead than the facts might justify. The US does face growing constraints to its economic and military power across the world, and its ability to build a prosperous, safe future for itself no longer rests exclusively in its own hands. But there is little doubt that the belief Americans have in themselves and their talents, some might call it naiveté, has historically been this country’s biggest strength. President Obama certainly thinks so, and continues to bet on it.