Obama’s final State of the Union: An incomplete success

President Barack Obama strode to the podium to night to deliver one of the most previewed speeches in recent memory. During the past week, he and his senior staff underscored that his final State of the Union address would be “non-traditional”—light on policy proposals, heavy on a vision of the future. Countering the dominant tone of the Republican primary, it would be optimistic, even uplifting. (White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough made the rounds of the morning shows last Sunday to wonder why the Republican candidates were so intent on “running down America.”) And finally, the speech would return to the theme that brought Barack Obama to national attention in 2004 and suffused his 2008 presidential campaign—namely, bringing America together across lines of Red and Blue. In an interview days before the speech, the president affirmed his belief that Washington is far more divided than are the American people.

As a keen analyst of American politics, moreover, Mr. Obama was surely concerned about the immediate as well as the farther future. Helping to elect a successor from his own party, which history suggests is not easy, would vindicate his presidency and protect his legacy. No doubt the president and his political advisors wanted to use the speech to shape the political terrain to the advantage of the Democratic Party and its next presidential nominee.

This political objective faced a number of obstacles. Recent surveys show that about two-thirds of Americans think the country is off on the wrong track. Large majorities say that we need new policies rather than a continuation of Mr. Obama’s. Slow growth and stagnant household incomes have sapped Americans’ faith in the future. The spread of chaos throughout the Middle East has taken the glow off the sharply reduced pace of American combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. ISIS-inspired terrorist incidents, first in Paris and then in San Bernardino, have raised Americans’ fear of a future attack to level not seen since shortly after 9/11.

Against this backdrop, a straightforward “let us continue” appeal would be unlikely to gain much political traction. The challenge for the president and his speechwriters was to remind the people of his administration’s accomplishments without denying the difficulties we continue to confront, at home and abroad.

Did the speech measure up to these complex and in some ways contradictory expectations?

My first impression is that while Mr. Obama’s last State of the Union was civil and cordial, it was at heart a fighting speech. Yes, he identified some areas of common ground. But he gave no ground and offered no new bargains—grand or small—that might build consensus across party lines.

Nor did the president make any concessions to the popular mood. We live in a time of extraordinary change, he said, and we have many times before. “Each time,” he continued, “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 that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears.”

There is much to be said for this line of argument. But it suggests that such fears are simply irrational. It offers neither aid nor comfort to the groups in our society who are in fact losing ground and who have been given no reason to believe that change can be their friend—the groups to whom Donald Trump and others have been appealing so successfully. For example, Mr. Obama spoke forcefully in favor of ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But he did not try to persuade the millions of Americans—in many surveys the majority—who have come to believe that when trade with less developed countries expands, Americans’ wages contract and their jobs disappear.

To his credit, Mr. Obama did offer an explanation for what is happening. “The economy is changing in profound ways, changes that started well before the Great Recession and haven’t let up. Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated. Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth is concentrated at the very top.”

This is fair enough as an analysis of the broad trends in whose grips we all find ourselves—although Sen. Sanders and organized labor might beg to differ. But the president went on to say that his administration’s goal has been “a growing economy that works better for everyone.” We have made progress toward this end, he asserted, but “we need to make more.” Average households whose incomes haven’t budged since the late 1990s can be forgiven for wondering when they will see this progress in their paychecks. Better systems of education and training are necessary, as the president suggested, but there is no reason to believe that they will be sufficient.

Mr. Obama agrees. “Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough,” he insisted; “these decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns.” This is true. But here, as so often in this speech, the president was content to play the role of analyst while the people are demanding action.

Mr. Obama’s defense of his strategy for fighting terror was unyielding. “As we focus on destroying ISIL,” he declared, “over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. 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.”  He’s right, they don’t, and I doubt that most Americans think they do. Nonetheless, there is fear in the land—fear not for America’s national existence, but for the security of its neighborhoods and the safety of its families. The randomness and unpredictability of terrorist attacks magnifies these fears. Here, as with the economy, the president did little to address the powerful emotions that are driving so much of the political debate in this presidential election.

There was much more in the speech, but this partial summary is enough to provide its gist and tone. Judged against its principal objectives, it was at most an incomplete success. Although Mr. Obama provided a ringing defense of his administration’s accomplishments, he did not do enough to persuade Americans that he understands their struggles or their fears. At numerous junctures he offered cogent diagnoses of the current situation, but in the main his prescription was “steady as you go,” with a handful of tweaks. Few Americans who began listening to the speech with the belief that the country is off on the wrong track changed their minds by the end, I suspect. Democratic presidential aspirants probably won’t feel that the president has made their task of prevailing in November any easier.

Mr. Obama concluded his speech by arguing that we cannot attain the future we want unless we “fix our politics.” No doubt many Americans agree. But we cannot fix our politics, he contended, unless we “change the system”—by eliminating gerrymandering, reducing the influence of money, and making voting easier. Missing from this list is the role that leadership can play, by making choices that bridge divides rather than hardening them. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency,” he said, that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”

Whatever the impact of Mr. Obama’s final State of the Union address, it will not change the core reality of his presidency. He entered office with two large aspirations: to be a transformative president, and to be a unifying force in our politics. As he came to believe that he could not achieve both, he chose transformation over unity. History may well judge that he made the right choice. Nonetheless, the worsening polarization of the American party system is in part a legacy of that choice. It will fall to the next president to determine whether a greater degree of unity is consistent with the strong leadership the American people seem to be demanding.