U.S. President Barack Obama promised that his final State of the Union address on Tuesday night would be something very different from the six that had preceded it. And, he made good on that promise — abandoning the traditional laundry list of policy proposals to instead make an extended case against the vision being offered by 2016 Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
“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,” Obama said near the start of the speech. “And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the ‘dogmas of the quiet past.'”
Trump’s name was never mentioned by Obama — and at least one former top adviser to the president insisted that the State of the Union was not meant as a direct rebuttal to Trumpism.
And yet, the specter of Trump was everywhere in Obama’s speech.
“We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race our religion,” he said.
“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” he said.
“The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians,” he said. “That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” he said. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.”
At every turn — from his defense of the economic progress made during his presidency to a robust insistence of U.S. greatness and continued status as the one indispensable nation — Obama’s speech felt like a point-by-point refutation of the worldview put forward by Trump since he formally entered the presidential race in mid-June.
The United States, Obama insisted, is already great. He cast the dystopic vision painted by Trump as not unique but rather simply the latest in a long line of fear peddlers at a time of national anxiety. That by rejecting the promises of Trump, the U.S. could — and would — re-assert the fundamental goodness at the heart of who we are as a people.
Obama’s final words sought to drive that point home. “That’s the America I know,” he insisted. “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.”
Even as Obama was uttering those words, Trump was tweeting some of his own: The #SOTU speech is really boring, slow, lethargic – very hard to watch!
The #SOTU speech is really boring, slow, lethargic – very hard to watch!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2016
A better encapsulation of the competing visions being offered the country in 2016 you could not ask for. Obama appealing to the country’s better angels. Trump yawning and panning.
No, as Obama likes to remind his critics, he isn’t running for any other office. His name will never appear on the ballot again. But, make no mistake: His final State of the Union speech was aimed at framing the race to pick his successor — and delivered with Donald J. Trump very firmly in mind.
But, will it slow Trump? Count me as skeptical.
© 2016, The Washington Post