On the night that Barack Obama first won election to the White House, he announced to a cheering crowd, "Change has come to America." In 2008, millions of Americans weary of a deep recession, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hoped, and Obama promised a new spirit of optimism and bipartisan cooperation:
Jan. 12, 2016 - Washington, District Of Columbia, U.S - President BARACK OBAMA delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill. Image Credit: Evan Vucci/Pool/Prensa Internacional via ZUMA Wire)
"What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other."
Seven years into his presidency, in his @WhiteHouse/president-obama-s-2016-state-of-the-union-address-7c06300f9726#.j9nz1t5nu">final State of the Union address, Barack Obama claimed partial, but significant victories: robust job growth, shrinking deficits, improvements in high school graduation rates, and a multilateral approach to international affairs that led to a controversial agreement to limit Iran's nuclear weapons program, the normalization of relations with Cuba, and the Trans-Pacific partnership deal.
However, the President also acknowledged that the spirit of bipartisan cooperation that he had hoped to engender has not happened. He said that the rancor and gridlock that characterizes much of our contemporary discourse is, "one of the few regrets of my Presidency."
First Lady Michelle Obama left an empty chair in her box as a silent tribute to victims of gun violence. It was also a reminder of Pres. Obama's frustrated effort to enact his gun control proposals.
Predictably, he asserted that his signature Affordable Care Act had not only expanded the number of Americans with health insurance by 18 million, it had helped to curb the rising cost of health care and facilitated job growth. He also touted US strides toward energy independence and sounded the hope that he and the Congress would be able to work on issues that have bipartisan support: criminal justice reform and expanding drug treatment.
However, the President acknowledged that Americans face significant challenges that leave many of its citizens anxious about our safety and the prospects for our children's future. He pointed to structural economic changes that have uprooted industries that once provided stable middle-class jobs. he noted that communications technologies can intended for good purposes such as technological innovation can just as easily be used to organize terror cells and criminal conspiracies. He also pointed to the scientific consensus about the urgent threats posed by climate change.
Obama promised that his speech would be light on policy proposals, but he did pledge to continue to press for priorities such as gun control and the closing the prison at Guantanomo Bay. He also asked Congress to endorse the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, to pass a resolution authorizing the use of military force against terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic state, and to repeal the trade embargo against Cuba.
On the domestic front, the president called for campaign finance reform, the expansion of pre-kindergarten, STEM education initiatives, and college access. He stressed the need to address income inequality, noting that "Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did." He called for campaign finance reform and the protection of voting rights. And he tasked Vice President Joe Biden with leading an effort to launch "a new moon shot" to cure cancer.
Critics across the political spectrum will doubtless argue about the issues that the president didn't address. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's response on behalf of the Republican Party voiced familiar criticisms of President Obama's approach to both national security and domestic concerns. Haley is considered a rising star in the Republican Party because of her handling of crises such as last year's massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the subsequent debate over the Confederate flag.
On the other side, the president's speech did little to assure critics on the left who worry about his administration's use of drones in international conflict, or his support for controversial figures such as embattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.
Still, the president's broader message was to counsel his successor and the American people to change the political culture, saying:
"[D]emocracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest."
In 2008, Barack Obama's inspirational personal story and his argument that we are more alike than we are different led millions of Americans to repose hope in his ability to be a transformational president. At the time, I worried that much of that hope reflected his supporters' wishes more than either the new president's intentions, or political reality. Honestly, he got more of his agenda through than I expected - particularly, health care reform, the Iran deal, and the deal on climate change, and two Supreme court appointments. What remains to be seen is whether the President's accomplishments and arguments can engender enough good will from voters that they will send a message to candidates for office in 2016 that they want to see his successor continue in the same direction.
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