Opinion

opinion | Michael A. Cohen

In State of the Union, Obama offers a choice

President Obama delivered the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber.
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President Obama delivered the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber.

Seven years ago this month, when Barack Obama won the Democratic caucus in Iowa and was on his way to being elected president, he offered the American people a hopeful and optimistic vision of America’s future. It was one in which the nation “tore down barriers that have divided us for too long . . . rallied people of all parties and ages to a common cause . . . and gave Americans who have never participated in politics a reason to stand up and to do so.” It was a destiny in which America was “not a collection of red states and blue states,” but rather — and quite simply “the United States of America.”

In his second-to-last State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama offered the American people something very different — a choice between his view of America’s future and that of Republicans.

Sure Obama talked about the need both parties to work together — just like he has in the past. But after six years of mindless and unrepentant Republican obstructionism, it seems hard to imagine that Obama actually believes this anymore. If anything, the speech was a master class in presidential trolling, in which he contrasted his successful presidency with that of his predecessor, and his hopeful vision with that of his opponents.

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“Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999,” said Obama. “Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

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You know, when that other guy was president.

Obama asked, rhetorically, “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates . . . chances for everyone? Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts . . . or will we lead wisely? Will we allow ourselves to be . . . turned against one another . . . or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?”

The contrast could not have been clearer — which party supports only the few, which party drags the nation into costly conflicts, which party turns Americans against each other? Surely, in Obama’s view, it’s not the Democrats.

“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits,” said the president. “Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years.”

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Or to put that more concisely, Obama was telling congressional Republicans — who spent most of the speech either on their hands or on their phones — “you lied.”

Obama went through a litany of progressive policy goals, including raising the minimum wage, expanding subsidized child care, and providing free community college, all of which have little chance of becoming law. But the point of the speech was not to identify common ground; it was instead to sharpen the policy differences between the two parties.

According to Obama, “We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree . . . that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.” On immigration, he said, “surely . . . it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.” On voting rights, “surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it’s being denied to too many, and . . . we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American.”

But of course Republicans don’t believe that – and surely Obama knows this. In political speechwriting, one often tries to create a strawman, an argument so fanciful and unrealistic that the speaker can then proceed to beat the bloody hell out of it. Obama slayed strawman after strawman, but perhaps none was larger than the idea that there is any real common ground between himself and Republicans. The suggestion that members of both parties can agree on issues like women’s health, immigration, and voting was meant solely to remind voters which party, in reality, has little interested in compromise.

In Obama’s telling, the only places where Democrats and Republicans can come together and work toward that greater good is the place where his policy agenda resides.

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In that sense, Obama’s State of the Union was a lame-duck speech, but it was also a hard-nosed political speech that was intended to cast Democrats as the party of the middle class and of the forgotten man and woman, and the Republicans as the party of the one percent. Obama showed that he fully intends not only to maintain his relevance as president, but that he will do everything in his power to leave behind as his legacy a strengthened Democratic Party and a political narrative in which the fundamental differences between the two parties could not be clearer. The candidate who once ran on the notion of a post-partisan America said to the American people Tuesday night — in a manner as clearly as perhaps he’s ever done — that there is no fuzzy middle ground where Americans can congregate. There is blue state America and red state America, and it’s up to them to decide which one they prefer.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.