This speech brought home to me that President Obama’s presidency is coming to an end. But I don’t mean that in a negative sense, not in the sense of diminishing power or relevance. I mean something different. I said at the outset that this was one of the most tepid State of the Union speeches I’d ever heard. And it was, at the outset. At the beginning it felt – dare I say it – professorial. The crowd didn’t seem to know quite what to make of it. But his themes and purpose began to become clear to me at about the half hour mark. I started to see how central the Republican nomination race was to the speech.
We’re in the midst of a presidential primary race which has antics and spectacle but, taken in full, is putting on display a dark side and dark moment in America. Not to put too fine a point on it but an avowed white nationalist group is running campaign advertisements for the Republican frontrunner. And it doesn’t seem to be taken as that big a deal. The frontrunner himself can’t even bother to disavow it.
I’ve said in various contexts in recent weeks that there’s a climate of fear in the country that seems to transcend any of the genuine threats the country faces. We can say the focus of these worries and anxieties are simply wrong. I noted a few days ago that at least in New York all the angst about rising crime turns out to be based on crime rates that aren’t going up at all. Yet, when we look back, these moods don’t grow out of nothing. They may focus on illusory trends but they represent realities we may only dimly understand. And on the national stage that climate, goosed by the intensity of an unstructured primary race, is giving us a presidential frontrunner on the Republican side with an increasingly racialized and even authoritarian message.
The President’s speech was a rebuke to the Trumps and the Cruzes and in a sense probably half the GOP field. But to the country as a whole it was more of a wake up call, a friendly reality check. I don’t know if America’s best economic days are ahead of it. We are clearly declining in relative terms, which isn’t necessarily bad. It just means other countries are rising. It is going to be pretty hard to be as dominant as we were in the 1950s when most of the world was in ruins and we were basically manufacturing everything for everyone. But in the realm of security and the possibilities of the future Obama was right on the mark. The line about Sputnick was an instant classic for a certain kind of American courage and can-do spirit, a certain version of exceptionalism. We do ourselves no favors but wildly exaggerating the threats we face as a country. And we demean ourselves by retreating into the sort of rancid and tribal group hate that Donald Trump now represents.
The oddness of the speech was Obama’s broad indifference to the partisan and even legislative politics of the moment. He wanted to say where he thinks we are as a country, a moment of opportunity and crossroads. Here’s the big picture, he seemed to be saying. We’re fine, we’re strong and we’re safe. We’re still Americans and we can do great things. And I (Obama) think we will do them.