A call for civility and honest debate

U.S. President Barack Obama gave his seventh, and last, State of the Union address Tuesday night in Washington. The speech, as is often the case for presidents in their last year, differed from previous addresses. Instead of laying down a list of policy initiatives and making the case for a legislative agenda, Obama drew a larger picture, one that explains how he looks at and frames the world. Most significantly, he attempted to deflate the bubble of anger and fear that seems to animate U.S. politics and is especially evident in the Republican campaign. Remarkably, that was also the message of the GOP “response” to the president’s address.

As he considers his last year in office, Obama has reason to be proud. As he explained in his speech, the United States is in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs have been created, and the unemployment rate has been cut in half, from 10 percent to 5 percent. The manufacturing sector has created nearly 900,000 jobs in the past six years. Household income has grown at a rate of 3 to 4 percent annually for the past two years. All the while, the federal government has been getting its house in order, cutting its deficit by almost three-quarters. The president concluded that “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”

Nevertheless, the mood among the electorate is dark and angry. A Gallup poll released earlier in the week showed an overwhelming majority — 79 percent — deeply dissatisfied with the direction of the country. That could be because they see terrorist attacks overseas and they are told that their country is hated because it is powerful, and threatened because their president is weak. That “weakness” is the product of Obama’s belief that the U.S. cannot try to rebuild every country that falls into crisis. “It’s the lesson of Iraq,” he said.

The State of the Union address was an attempt to puncture that bubble of unreality and the fear that it creates. It was a call for a reasoned approach to events both within the U.S. borders and beyond. It was a call for effort by all Americans on behalf of shared goals and ambitions — “opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids” — that are, he reminded his audience, “within our reach.” But, he cautioned, that is possible only if the American people work together and have “rational, constructive debates.”

That means turning away from “those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control.” It means accepting facts and science and, in a sly dig at the opponents of his efforts to combat climate change, not pretending that the truth is otherwise. “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget.” That means rejecting hyperventilation that turns real threats into monstrous dangers. So, when assessing the Islamic State militants, “Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence.”

To those who accuse the president of weakening and endangering his country, his response was simple: “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.” But, he continued, the military is not the solution to every problem. “The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”

Taken together, the speech called out the Republican opposition that has stood for principle against compromise, and for chest thumping rather than a careful consideration of the options. Obama faulted himself for the fact that rancor and suspicions have gotten worse during his term, acknowledging that “a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.” But the bitter opposition that he has faced and the Republican Party’s determination to deny him any legislative victories would likely have tested the limits of both of those presidents.

Obama has not given up; his final year in office will not be a victory lap or an attempt to merely burnish his legacy. He has his priorities — criminal justice reform, combating prescription drug abuse, fixing the immigration system, reducing gun violence, raising the minimum wage and others — and he promised at the end of last year to do everything he could and “leave it all out on the field.”

The Republican rejoinder to the president’s address, delivered by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, echoed that logic, in particular the admonition to fight the temptation “to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” a line she admitted the next day was aimed at the leading GOP presidential contender, businessman Donald Trump. Her remarks could signal evidence of common ground among Democrats and Republicans, but the pressures of a presidential campaign season make posturing and zero-sum positioning more likely. It promises to be a long year for Obama and American voters.