President Obama used a political spotlight he may never command to the same degree again to bring the nation’s focus to his legacy -– with a hope of reclaiming a spirit he long ago saw vanish.
Coming at a moment of national angst and anger, with a loud campaign raging to replace him, the president used his final State of the Union address to remind the nation of his achievements, even if many of those are less than popular.
He was calm in comparison to the overheated politics outside the House chamber. One of his last big speeches as president, though, will go down not for its unifying tones but for the challenges he offered for Americans to join him in his vision all over again, for posterity’s sake.
“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” Obama said. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”
It was an acknowledgment that the most important thing this president can do in his final year is preserve the gains of the last seven. Obama made clear that the presidential race matters to him –- not as an academic or historical matter, but to continue the course he helped set.
Central to that mission is a plea to a nation that once united, to the degree that’s possible in modern politics, behind his vision for the future. He didn’t utter the words “Donald Trump” or his many rivals, of course, but he referenced the “political hot air” with some specificity of language, matching up his vision as a choice for the public.
New policy wasn’t the point, though he touted the need to address climate change and address economic, infrastructure, and immigration challenges. The president used history to argue that “those who told us to fear the future” have failed to “restore past glory.”
It’s a public nervous about the present, though, that offers the biggest challenge to what’s left of Obama’s time in office. As 2016 dawns, the president made clear that while he’s not running again, he’s effectively on the ballot at least one more time.
“Who knows,” the president said, “we just might surprise the cynics again.”