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Obama’s last State of the Union was an attack on Trump-ism

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President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address Tuesday night.REUTERS

When I used to teach a class on speechwriting one thing I'd always tell my students is that when writing a political speech, you need tension, conflict and perhaps, above all, a strawman to contrast with your, hopefully, more positive and aspirational message.

Tuesday night at Barack Obama's final State of the Union he didn't need a strawman: He had Donald Trump.

To a remarkable and almost bewildering degree, Obama's SOTU became not the usual exercise of laying out a specific policy agenda for the year ahead, but instead diminishing and rebuking Trumpism.

Obama's agenda was clear from the outset. "We live in a time of extraordinary change," he said as he utilized a classic and tired piece of political boilerplate. But then he quickly pivoted to a thinly-disguised attack on Trump.


"Each time, 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."

For those of you keeping score at home, "promising to restore past glory" is a euphemism for Trump's presidential slogan, "make America great again."

Now that Obama had set up his strawman — err, Trump-man — he unloaded on it.

"And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the 'dogmas of the quiet past.' . . . We made change work for us, always extending America's promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people," emerging "stronger and better than before."

From there was one shot at Trump after another.

"Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?" he asked.

"Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction," a direct rebuke of Trump's claims that the country is a disaster.


"All the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker" was wrong, he continued. "The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close."

Obama didn't leave out Trump's GOP rivals. "As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands," he said in a more direct rebuke of Chris Christie and others who regularly claim WWIII is upon us. And he called out Ted Cruz directly, saying, "Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians."

But it seemed clear that the real target was Trump. When Obama called on Americans to "reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion," he used one of the GOP front-runner's favorite phrases, "this isn't a matter of political correctness," and later, when decrying politicians who "insult Muslims," he said, "that's not telling it like it is."

And yet what made this speech so interesting is that Obama, to a large extent, contrasted Trump's bombast and divisive rhetoric with his own political ideology. When Obama said democracy requires "basic bonds of trust between its citizens" and "doesn't work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice" and "grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise," he was taking a page out of his own 2008 campaign playbook. He even name-checked his famous 2008 race speech in calling for "a more perfect union" (the title of that address).


When he spoke of his own progressive political agenda, he even tried to find some sliver of compromise between the two parties. He talked about joining forces with House Speaker Paul Ryan to address poverty and working together "on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse." Even on climate change, where the divides between the two parties couldn't be more stark, Obama tried to find common ground. "Even if the planet wasn't at stake; even if 2014 wasn't the warmest year on record," he said, "why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?"

Of course, little of this is likely to happen, and Obama knows that, but as has been so often the case with the president's postpartisan rhetoric, his words served a clear political purpose — contrasting those who would divide Americans (Trump) with those who would seek, even if just rhetorically, to bring the country together (Obama and by extension, the Democratic Party).

And then, finally, there was the old tried-and-true feature of any great political speech: a warning about the failure to follow the speaker's lead.

"If we give up now, then we forsake a better future," said Obama. "Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don't look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background."


In so many words, Obama used his likely final appearance in the well of the House of Representatives to offer Americans a choice — fear or hope, progress or retrenchment, him or Trump.

In an era of intense political polarization, in which Obama's campaign rhetoric about bridging the nation's divides have spectacularly failed to materialize, it's a fitting and sad denouement to his presidency.

Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter@speechboy71.