Republican and Democratic voters don’t agree on much, but they do believe this: that the system is rigged against the worker and that the United States is the greatest country in the world. In his final State of the Union speech, U.S. President Barack Obama lingered on these sentiments as he sought to bridge an ideological divide pitting nationalism against globalism.
The same rejection of pluralism that led to right-wing electoral gains in Hungary, France and Poland is also propelling Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz to the top of U.S. presidential polls. It thrives on natural instincts, such as discomfort with change or distrust of outsiders, repackaged as a political platform. But in his speech last night, which sounded in some ways like a valediction, Obama tried to sidestep the debate with an argument no American wants to contest: that as Americans, they’re better than that.
For galvanizing national solidarity, there’s no better method than saber-rattling. More than once in last night’s speech, Obama referenced the might of the U.S. military, the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.” At a time when the West feels especially vulnerable to terrorist attacks, the president challenged the notion that these crimes represent an existential threat. “Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” he said.
Meanwhile, he cast in wry terms the American economic collapse, quipping, “Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did.” Yet, as presidential candidates on both sides seize public perception of an economy in ruins, Obama — either to preserve his image for posterity or to recast the political discourse — cited the streak of recent job growth and the nation’s vast GDP as proof the U.S. is not in decline.