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.
So what is that queasy feeling American workers have noticed? Change. “Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere and face tougher competition,” he said, and then: “More and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.” In other words, the fresh-faced immigrants aren’t the culprits; old white men are. Certainly large swathes of the discontented working class would disagree.
These parts of the speech sounded like a salute to Sen. Elizabeth Warren or, more likely, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the presidential candidate whose polling numbers have crept ever-closer to Hillary Clinton’s in the Democratic primary elections. The latest figures predict a tight contest in Iowa, the first state to cast ballots, where Cruz and Trump are also in a dead heat on the conservative side.
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If division and differences have been the salient themes of the presidential race, Obama’s speech centered on ideas no one could possibly oppose. For instance, that cancer is bad. He vowed, “Let’s make America the country that cures cancer, once and for all.”
But with just one year left in his presidency, he avoided specific promises and definitive steps. In any case, an analysis by The Guardian reveals that Obama has kept fewer than half the promises he made in previous State of the Union addresses.
In a solemn moment, he firmly confronted the anti-Muslim rhetoric: “When politicians insult Muslims … 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.” It was the closest he came to directly scolding Trump, who pledged to restrict Muslim immigration entirely.
Here finally was an opening. When Obama’s speech ended, the official Republican rebuttal began. In her televised response, Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, offered innocuous agreement to Obama’s take on Muslims. She said America must continue to allow legal immigration “regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries.”
Seems reasonable. Common ground at last? Not in this America. Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter shot out a tweet: “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”