Barack Obama used his last State of the Union address to warm Americans about the dangerous rise of Donald Trump.
Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address may not have been a particularly memorable speech, but it was a remarkable one.
Who could have guessed that Obama would use this stage, the biggest and grandest available to any president, to choose to discuss with the nation the clear and present danger as presented by … Donald Trump?
It looked like one of those Trump-wins moments because recent history tells us that any time you mention The Donald, he wins.
But Obama had little choice.
If your final State of the Union is supposed to be a legacy speech, a way to measure what a president has and has not accomplished during his time in office, Obama’s speech had to address the fact of Trumpism, the fact that, on Obama’s watch, a billionaire showman has taken American insecurity to a far darker place, the fact that even if demagoguery doesn’t win in the race to succeed Obama, it will have enjoyed a hell of a run.
The Donald’s campaign is not just a strange billionaire’s strange take on American populism, with a strong nativist strain and a promise that a strongman will lead America back to greatness by keeping out the weak (read: dark and strange) who are somehow destroying America.
Looking back at it, it’s clear that Trumpism is the inevitable result of the eight or 16 or 24 years in which the country hasn’t been divided so much by left and right or red and blue but by talkshow versions of good and evil.
Trumpism is a vision of a dystopian America that is the exact opposite of how Obama sees America seven years into his presidency. And so his answer to Trump was to ask America — with a wink and a smile — to look at itself a little more closely and decide if we actually are a bunch of losers.
Obama put it this way: “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. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the ‘dogmas of the quiet past.'”
He didn’t use Trump’s name, but he didn’t have to. The headlines spoke of “veiled” shots taken at Trump. Nothing was veiled. This was Obama saying that “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer … This isn’t a matter of political correctness.”
It’s a matter, Obama said, of how we define what it is to be an American.
This is Obama saying America is not weak (and he’s not feckless), but that we’re the strongest country in the history of the world. Those who say otherwise are “peddling fiction.” And the economy, though it has problems, particularly in stagnating wages for the middle class and in income inequality, is still the strongest and most reliable in world. Those who say the economy is weak are full of “hot air.” And on foreign policy, Obama said to elevate “failed states” in the Middle East is to give them the credibility they seek. And this: “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.”
Someone put it this way in the post-speech chatter. Trump wants to make America great again, and Obama says it is already great. The strongest nation. Period. Not even close.
Much of this is in line with the usual presidential campaigning. But the battles of the Obama presidency – the stakes as laid out that Obama wants to fundamentally change America into something unrecognizable — has led Republicans, and particularly Trump, to insist that America has in fact turned into something, well, unrecognizable and dangerously so.
It isn’t just Obama who finds this brand of Trumpism dangerous. In maybe the strangest part of the night, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave the official Republican response to Obama’s speech, which, it turned out, will be remembered as the well-received (in some corners) official Republican response to Trump.
“During anxious times,” she said, “it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”
You’ve seen the stories from the Republican establishment that if Trump wins the nomination — still an unlikely prospect, the pros tell us – the party could implode. George Will warns that if Trump is the nominee in 2016, there will be no conservative Republican party in 2020. Michael Gerson writes that a Trump win would “rip the heart” out of the party.
Obama would say that one of his “few regrets” is that he will leave office with the rancor in Washington worse than when he arrived. He even added, in a rare show of humility, that maybe Lincoln or FDR would have done better. He promises to try harder and asks, with the confidence of one who’s sure he knows the answer, “Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”
But I think Obama lets himself off too easily. The message that got him elected, we all remember, was one of hope and change. That, of course, hasn’t always worked out so well. But, in the end, the change can’t be that we turn into a country in which Donald Trump comes next. Or even comes close.