President Obama's final State Of The Union speech last night was thoughtful, passionate, and powerful. More than that, it was hopeful and defiant, echoing the theme that got him elected as the first African American President back in 2008 and the attitude that got him re-elected in 2012.
For anyone who has watched Obama closely over the years, it was obvious that the President was on rare form last night. Tired of the political games played by the opposition, Obama forcefully outlined his achievements and tore into the Republicans for their petulant childishness. It was a masterful spectacle that laid the foundations for the next Democrat to take over and powerfully undermined the philosophical underpinnings of Republican nihilism.
Almost from the get go, Obama let rip on corporate capitalism and Republican free market ideology. "After years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else; or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered," he said.
"Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did," he continued, referencing Republican attempts to divert attention away from the powerful and onto the vulnerable. "Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts."
Then, Obama moved to climate change and Republican denial of basic science. “Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it,” he said. “You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”
Touting his own environmental record, Obama added: "We’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly sixty percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth." And never one to let an opportunity slip, he hit Republicans where it hurts the most. "Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either," he quipped.
Debunking another myth created by Republicans, Obama pivoted to America's standing in the world and the ludicrous notion that it has somehow slipped while he has been in office.
"I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air," he said confidently. "Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close."
"We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined," he continued. "Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead – they call us."
Obama then proceeded to explain foreign policy to the Republicans in the room, spelling out in patient detail why they have no idea what they are talking about, have no substantive plans to take out ISIS and cannot be left in charge under any circumstance.
"We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis," he said after explaining his military strategy against ISIL. "That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq – and we should have learned it by now."
"Fortunately, there’s a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power," he continued, reiterating his point that serious decisions need to be left to the adults. "It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight."
Obama then proceeded to explain what real leadership is about -- a lesson Republicans would do well to listen to: "Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right," he said.
"That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion," he continued, referencing Republican bigotry and xenophobia. "This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith."
"When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country."
Take note Donald Trump. Discussing perhaps the greatest threat to America's future, Obama then outlined how he would be spending the rest of his days in office -- trying to get money out of politics.
"We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections," he said. "And if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution. We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do."
Obama ended his historic speech with another call to Republicans to work together to fix America's systemic problems and external challenges. He asked them to work with him, not against him.
"What I’m asking for is hard," he said. "It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. 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," he continued. "We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world."
Predictably, Republicans have responded to the President's speech with the same divisive language Obama spent all night denouncing -- a sad reminder that they cannot be allowed anywhere near the White House in 2016, and a testament to just how much normal people are going to miss this President.
Above all though, Obama's speech was a call to action to carry on the good fight, to rise above the nastiness, hate and fear mongering and to focus on solving hard problems with courage. While there is much to criticize about Obama's presidency, it is undeniable that he was the best possible President in a moment in history when the world desperately needed calm, thoughtful leadership from its greatest superpower. More than that, America, and the world needed to believe that hope could win against greed and fear -- even if only symbolically. Obama is that symbol, and last night he reminded us of it again.