President Barack Obama single-handedly changed the format of the State of the Union address with the final one he delivered to Congress on Tuesday evening, Jan. 12, 2016. Obama’s final address sounded more like a farewell address going full circle back to the themes of his 2008 presidential campaign, hope, and change. Obama’s reflective address dealt with four major themes in each one he looked back at his accomplishments, expressed his regrets, and outlined a map for the future beyond his last year as president. The president main aim was returning the country to the feeling of hope rather than fear, and that change did occur for the better under his watch. Obama’s major themes are forever entwined and associated with his presidency, and his goal of bringing them full circle is more important than any of the individual policies outlined in his last address. For President Obama, his last major address to the nation was more than the state of the union it was a love letter to his country and its citizens.
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President Obama promised a non-traditional State of the Union address, and he kept his promise.
Very little was listed of legislative plans for his last year . However, he did provide one laundry list at the start of his speech before moving on. Obama said he still intends on “helping students learn to write computer code to personalizing medical treatments for patients. And I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing. Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage.”
Obama however, wants to be remembered in history for his last State of the Union, he wanted it to define his legacy and live up to the soaring rhetoric, he used to be so often praised. As the president stated at the start of his speech, “For my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to talk just about the next year. I want to focus on the next five years, ten years, and beyond. I want to focus on our future.” Looking at the future and the past, he returned to the theme of change that defined his first and successful campaign for president in 2008. Unlike in 2008, eight years later, the president explains that change can be for the good or the worse, stating, “We live in a time of extraordinary change – change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world.”
Looking towards his legacy, what historians will say about his ability to change the country, the president aimed to emphasize the positive that comes not just from good change, but the change brought on by challenges. Obama expressed the country needs to look forward not to the past, “each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the ‘dogmas of the quiet past.’ Instead, we thought anew, and acted anew.” As always in American history, Obama espoused, “We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did – because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril – we emerged stronger and better than before.”
The president praised the country’s path forward under his leadership, citing, “That spirit that made the progress of these past seven years possible. It’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. It’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector; how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans, and how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.” Still, the president did not see his accomplishments as enough. Instead of having historians critic him after he left office, ever the professor he provides his analysis, particularly in four areas, the economy, technology, national security and foreign policy and Washington culture, the ever-increasing partisan wars.
Obama outlined these issues as four broad questions, harkening back to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. The questions served as the thesis of his address. Under each one, he delineated his accomplishments, what more needs to be done and where he faltered, and ultimately his vision for the future. The president asked, “First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us – especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”
Deviating from the usual State of the Union formula, Obama still included a broad laundry list of what he hope and believes still could be done in his last year. The president looked to find common ground with Republicans, but also left himself enough room for failure, passing the torch to the next administration, and Congress, who he hopes will be like-minded and Democratic. It is the spirit of extreme partisanship of the growing divide between red and blue America that he hoped to bridge as far back as his national debut at the 2004 Democratic convention that is the president’s greatest lament and regret.
The fourth question about Washington politics is where Obama admits more than any other area of his presidency defeat. Reflective President Obama expressed, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.” The president still hopeful believes in the good deep in Congressional Republican hearts, and the chance for partisanship is possible, but “we have to change the system to reflect our better selves.”
Ultimately, Obama believes America’s better self shine through each day with the acts of ordinary citizens, who he gives more credit than even he does, for the good of the country does. The president is coming full circle on the theme of hope, expressed, “That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That’s why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong.”
President Obama’s came on as a force in 2008, bringing optimism to a country that experienced years of war after the worse attack on American history. Once in office, Obama had to deal with the ugliness that accompanies reality, the lofty ideals became forgotten recessed in campaign rhetoric, and brought out again tepidly for a reelection. This farewell address was not only Obama’s way of expressing victory in his presidency’s policy, but owning his mistakes, both his own of his making and brought upon by external influences, while still laying out that he did change the country hopefully for the better now, but also in the future.
Clearly, a historical self-analysis Obama wants to be remembered in history with the presidential giants and his presidential idols, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who he was compared to early in his presidency. Breaking with tradition, Obama changed the State of the Union is strong from the usual thesis to the conclusion, ending how he hopes he did with his presidency with a stronger country that when he began his journey.