Blame Woodrow Wilson. Before his presidency that annual State of the Union thing wasn’t a formal speech delivered before a Joint Session of Congress – it wasn’t even annual. It was more of an occasional internal memo, as required by Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution. It was a specific enumerated task. The president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
This was no more than a heads-up. Congress writes the laws and the president administers them, so the idea was that now and then he really ought to tell Congress how it’s going, and make whatever suggestions that occur to him to make things work a bit better. Before Woodrow Wilson this was a written report – Thomas Jefferson’s low-key idea – Jefferson would not be some sort of king addressing parliament – and this was certainly not directed at the general public. It was just a housekeeping task, a bit of a chore – but before Wilson there was no such thing as radio, with its national audience.
That changed things. When radio came along, a formal speech delivered before a Joint Session of Congress, broadcast to the nation, was a chance to set an agenda, and chance for the president to tell the nation he was asking Congress to advance his wonderful agenda, and daring them, at their peril, to oppose it. The occasional internal memo had become a policy manifesto, a statement of what we really ought to be doing as a nation, often quite specific, and often resented by Congress for obvious reasons – and television only made things worse.
Kennedy was fine – he suggested landing a man on the moon and returning him safely (a key detail) by the end of the decade. Who could argue with that? The Soviets had been the first to put a satellite in orbit and the first to put a man in space, so we had to show them a thing or two, and we did. But Lyndon Johnson called for a War on Poverty and a Great Society, and he challenged Congress to pass all that civil rights stuff too. The Republicans weren’t happy with any of it. They had hated FDR and his New Deal and all the rest for decades, and this was more of the same, laid out as the right thing to do, right there on national television, in prime time, preempting the sitcoms and game shows. It just wasn’t fair, but Johnson got his Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and all the rest. A casual internal memo would not have accomplished that. This rather mundane required report had been weaponized. It had become a political weapon.
It had also become tiresome, which might explain this:
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) said that he cannot stand to listen to President Obama anymore which is why he removed himself from the House chamber Tuesday night shortly before the State Of The Union.
“I cannot abide sitting in there and being lectured one more time,” King said.
Instead, King spoke to the assembled press, saying he planned to visit the members’ chapel where he would pray for babies who were never born because of abortion, for the “restoration of our Constitution,” and “that God will raise up a leader” for the White House in 2016.
No one missed him. He pouted alone, but others fought back:
Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson is criticizing President Barack Obama for allowing representatives of a Muslim civic group to attend the State of the Union address, saying their actions are “not pro-American.”
Democratic lawmakers have invited two members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to attend Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night. Speaking to CNN Tuesday morning, Carson said he has called for an investigation of the group, accusing them of having “done things that are clearly not pro-American.”
“Let’s go ahead and investigate the thing,” he said. “Let’s not be giving them access to the ability to further carry on what they call a civilization jihad, and to change us from a Judeo-Christian foundation to a Muslim foundation. We have got to be smarter than that.”
Carson knew what was coming, as the Washington Post reports:
President Obama tried to use his final State of the Union address Tuesday to calm Americans’ economic and national security anxieties, tout his record and rebuke Republican presidential hopefuls for the vitriolic tone of their campaigns to replace him.
“And then, as frustration [with politics] grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” Obama said, in one of many not-so-subtle references to GOP front-runner Donald Trump. “We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all; it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”
And this wasn’t exactly an internal memo:
Obama gave passing mention to a handful of policy priorities – including promoting trade, curbing prescription-drug abuse, reforming the criminal-justice system and curing cancer – but he devoted more of the speech to talking to the nation rather than the House and Senate members before him.
Obama’s speech came with more than a year – a full one-eighth of his term – still remaining in the White House. But he seemed to be already thinking of what the place would look like without him, and trying to balance confidence in his achievements (“Ask Osama bin Laden,” he said at one point) with acknowledgments that many Americans didn’t feel as good about the Obama era as he did.
Obama had decided to address that:
“America has been through big changes before – wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights,” Obama said. “Each time, there have been 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. And each time, we overcame those fears.”
Without naming them directly, Obama ripped into several the leading GOP presidential candidates in blunt terms, suggesting they were stoking similar fears now. In an uncertain world, he said, “our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians.”
America has earned respect by fostering a tradition of tolerance, he said, before making a veiled reference to Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
“That’s why we need to reject any politics – any politics,” he repeated for emphasis, “that targets people because of race or religion. Let me say this: This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong.”
He also fired off this:
The United States “can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq – and we should have learned it by now.”
Well, yeah, and the New York Times notes this:
Mr. Obama also argued that the country’s most acute challenges emanate not from the strength of adversaries – a primary criticism of Republicans who portray the president as feckless in the face of mounting threats – but from their weakness.
He defended his approach to taking on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, describing it as a dangerous threat to the United States that must be dealt with, but not an existential one, and not a force that warrants a commitment of American ground forces in Iraq and Syria.
Josh Marshall comments on that:
This essential point – both on Russia and ISIS – is a real needle to thread but incredibly important. Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine and Syria are largely tied to fear of losing few remaining international clients. And puncture this nonsense about the fight against ISIS being World War III or the war of our time or whatever, nonsense. It’s really nonsense. Even the point of continuing to refer to them as their “caliphate” is factually silly and strategically foolish. I heard a few days ago the Prime Minister of Iraq referring to ISIS as a “criminal gang.” By any historical terms, calling ISIS a “caliphate” is very dubious. And very few Muslims recognize it as such. So why, other than to puff up their historic significance, grant them this title, which is a historic and glorious one in the history of Islam?
As this speech comes more into focus, its themes more evident, it becomes clear how much of it is one long “Let’s get real, folks” aimed at the GOP primary race and the country watching it.
This actually might have been an “enough of this bullshit” speech delivered a bit more nicely than that, but only a bit, as Marshall also notes this, on all the anti-Muslim stuff in the air:
That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith. His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I stand tonight that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.
The message was clear. What the hell are you people thinking?
Well, some Republicans actually got it:
The Republican Party tapped South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to deliver its response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, but her most memorable jabs landed squarely on the GOP’s own Donald Trump. That’s a something that didn’t escape – or please – some conservatives.
Haley took clear aim at the GOP front-runner, discussing her family’s immigrant experience while warning against rhetoric that would threaten “the dream that is America” for others.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” Haley said from the governor’s residence in Columbia. “We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
Yeah, she said that:
Haley never mentioned Trump by name, but the implication was clear. The billionaire, who has led the Republican race in most national polls for months, said after the Paris terror attacks he would consider creating a national database of American Muslims and later called for a temporary halt to Muslims entering the United States.
Speaking to reporters in South Carolina a day after Trump proposed the ban, Haley dismissed it as “unconstitutional” and “an embarrassment” to the GOP.
“It defies everything that this country was based on,” she said. “It’s just wrong.”
And that led to this:
In a series of tweets radio host Laura Ingraham blasted the GOP and Haley for the rebuttal, which she said was more of a rebuttal to Donald Trump than President Barack Obama. …
Conservative commentator and author Ann Coulter went even farther, writing, “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”
“Nikki Haley: “The best thing we can do is turn down the volume” Translation: Voters need to shut the hell up,” she wrote as part of a series of tweets criticizing Haley’s response.
Over at Breitbart, Haley’s response was equated to an open-border policy. “Haley’s declaration that no one who is willing to work hard… should ever feel unwelcome in this country’ articulates the central principle of the open-borders philosophy,” read one article. “To the glee of our corrupt media, Nikki Haley is attacking our own frontrunner. The GOP Establishment is garbage,” tweeted Breitbart columnist John Nolte.
Obama must have smiled. Case closed. Josh Marshall sees that:
We’re in the midst of a presidential primary race which has antics and spectacle but, taken in full, is putting on display a dark side and dark moment in America. Not to put too fine a point on it but an avowed white nationalist group is running campaign advertisements for the Republican frontrunner. And it doesn’t seem to be taken as that big a deal. The frontrunner himself can’t even bother to disavow it.
I’ve said in various contexts in recent weeks that there’s a climate of fear in the country that seems to transcend any of the genuine threats the country faces. We can say the focus of these worries and anxieties are simply wrong. I noted a few days ago that at least in New York all the angst about rising crime turns out to be based on crime rates that aren’t going up at all. Yet, when we look back, these moods don’t grow out of nothing. They may focus on illusory trends but they represent realities we may only dimly understand. And on the national stage that climate, goosed by the intensity of an unstructured primary race, is giving us a presidential frontrunner on the Republican side with an increasingly racialized and even authoritarian message.
So this was indeed a get-real speech:
The President’s speech was a rebuke to the Trumps and the Cruzes and in a sense probably half the GOP field. But to the country as a whole it was more of a wake-up call, a friendly reality check. I don’t know if America’s best economic days are ahead of it. We are clearly declining in relative terms, which isn’t necessarily bad. It just means other countries are rising. It is going to be pretty hard to be as dominant as we were in the 1950s when most of the world was in ruins and we were basically manufacturing everything for everyone. But in the realm of security and the possibilities of the future Obama was right on the mark. The line about Sputnik was an instant classic for a certain kind of American courage and can-do spirit, a certain version of exceptionalism. We do ourselves no favors but wildly exaggerating the threats we face as a country. And we demean ourselves by retreating into the sort of rancid and tribal group hate that Donald Trump now represents.
Oh, and in case you missed it:
President Barack Obama hammered the “lonely” conservatives who continue to deny the scientific consensus on climate change during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
“If anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it,” Obama said. “You will be pretty lonely, because you will be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”
Obama also compared the scientific innovation needed to address the challenges of climate change to the flood of research that fueled the space race in the 1960s.
“Sixty years ago when the Russians beat us into space, we did not deny Sputnik was up there,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience. “We did not argue about the science or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later we were walking on the moon.”
Marshall can only add this:
The oddness of the speech was Obama’s broad indifference to the partisan and even legislative politics of the moment. He wanted to say where he thinks we are as a country, a moment of opportunity and crossroads. Here’s the big picture, he seemed to be saying. We’re fine, we’re strong and we’re safe. We’re still Americans and we can do great things. And I (Obama) think we will do them.
That’s what Slate’s Isaac Chotiner describes as cocky:
“I stand here as confident as I’ve ever been,” President Obama declared at the conclusion of his final State of the Union address. And then he paused, savoring the moment. Every viewer knew that there was more coming (it turned out to be, rather predictably, that the state of our Union is “strong”), but after listening to the president for an hour, those nine words could have been the subtext of the entire speech. This was a remarkably confident president, almost jaunty in his bearing, and exuding a good nature that seemed to be the result of sheer self-satisfaction. It may not signal anything about the eighth year of his presidency, but it certainly shows that he feels confident about the achievements of the first seven. …
Obama ticked through a number of economic indicators with the air of a man who was not only fed up with Donald Trump’s nonsense, but also disinclined to hear more about falling American standards of living and a hollowed-out manufacturing sector – the very rhetoric that has been the lifeblood of Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly hearty campaign. The foreign policy section of the speech displayed a president with even more swagger. After a brief discussion of ISIS (which Obama still annoyingly calls ISIL, with all the stubbornness of an old British imperialist mumbling about Ceylon or Madras), Obama perked up, sounding the most passionate and lively that he ever has about the terrorist group. “But the American people should know that with or without congressional action,” he stated, “ISIL will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them. If you doubt America’s commitment – or mine – to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell. When you come after Americans, we go after you.”
Yes, he sounded like George Bush there, but, for Obama, things have gone well:
He has led the most domestically significant presidency since at least Ronald Reagan, if not Lyndon Johnson. This past year saw two giant (if still provisional) achievements in foreign policy: a climate deal in Paris and a nuclear deal with Iran. Obama has always seemed to exhibit frustration with a media culture that he considers focused on trivial matters, rather than actual achievements. Tuesday night he seemed to show that he had made a certain amount of peace with his standing in opinion polls precisely because he feels so certain of his standing in the history books.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank also sees a man on a roll:
This was presidential leadership as it should be, and as Obama was reluctant to do early in his term: Using the power of his office to deliver a forceful moral message. Some may have thought it petty or unseemly that Obama was devoting a State of the Union address to the message of a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. But in the current environment, there is nothing more important than answering the dangerous demagoguery that has arisen. …
Again and again, Obama returned to his unnamed target: a xenophobic showman who has been spreading fear and anger across the land toward immigrants, minorities, women, the disabled and, particularly, Muslims. “Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” he asked.
Obama wasn’t offering a ten-point plan or demanding legislation on his desk. He was preaching. “Food stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did,” he said. “Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms.”
The sermon was more effective because it came with some humility. He expressed his “regrets” that partisan rancor worsened on his watch. “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”
But this was a sermon:
Obama meandered into a discussion of money in politics before resuming the night’s theme. “As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” he said. “We can’t afford to go down that path. It contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”
Yes he was preaching. And Congressman King was alone in the chapel praying for all those babies who had never been born, or so he said. And Donald Trump was tweeting that Obama’s speech was speech was really boring, slow, lethargic and very hard to watch – which, no doubt, it was for him. Perhaps he would have preferred the written report, Jefferson’s internal memo. But the State of the Union is now a weapon, and Obama used it. It was his parting shot, and it was a good shot.