How President Obama’s Final State Of The Union Address Went Down

Obama looks back, and forward.

January 12, 2016
How President Obama’s Final State Of The Union Address Went Down Larry Downing / Getty Images

President Obama's final State Of The Union address was hyped as unconventional, but there were some standbys you'd expect from the speech. There was a smattering of smooth, off-the-cuff jokes, and as many applause breaks as there was speaking time. He returned to the theme of “change” that defined his first presidential campaign, and flipped it to summarize the progress his presidency ushered over the past seven years.

“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”

He saved some of his strongest words for the economy, and Congress itself. “Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” he said, while acknowledging that income inequality and changing technology is affecting many. Entitlements were cited as some perks members of Congress enjoy that the American public should share: “It’s not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber.”

There were ambitions as well, both old and new: a new initiative to cure cancer helmed by Vice President Joe Biden, two years of free community college, and battling climate change. He spoke of ending gerrymandering, the embargo of Cuba, and big money in elections. He admitted that his to-do list was unlikely, given Washington's mood. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”

“Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns...In this new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less. The rules should work for them.”

The foreign policy section of Obama's speech sought to downplay the public's expectations about what's to come. “As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands...[ISIL] does not threaten our national existence.” He did bare his teeth when defending his national security credentials - “If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden.” - but for the most part refused to strike a hawkish note.

“Leadership means a wise application of military power.”

He alluded to the current election cycle, and by extension Donald Trump, a few times. “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion...Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.” At times the speech became a plea to get away from the reactionary vitriol that's dominated the news and back to substantive conversation. So Obama looked back, looked forward, and made his pitch for continued dialogue, then ended while describing America as “clear-eyed [and] big-hearted.” Was that a Friday Night Lights reference? Kanye/Coach for prez 2020.

How President Obama’s Final State Of The Union Address Went Down