“Appealing forlornly to its better nature”

A piece from the Economist discusses President Obama’s last State of the Union and his appeal to agonism and argues that it showed both his weaknesses and virtues, “TO HEAR most of the contenders for this year’s presidential election tell it, America is in a horrible state. Republicans both mainstream and whacko, from Jeb Bush to Donald Trump, describe a country enfeebled militarily, ailing economically and culturally corrupted by seven years of Democratic rule; on the left, Bernie Sanders describes an economy rigged against ordinary Americans. In his last state-of-the-union message to Congress on January 12th, Barack Obama delivered a rebuke to that miserabilism—and to the ugly nativism it is fuelling among voters”.

The author goes on to note that “During his first presidential campaign, Mr Obama promised Americans a lot of change they would like. In what is likely to be his last major speech before the process of electing his successor begins in Iowa on February 1st, he talked more of the historic change globalisation is making, to the workplace, pay packets and complexion of American society, in turn creating much of the anxiety and resentment his would-be successors are pandering to”.

The writer notes that “It is not certain that America will master the turbulence. “Progress is not inevitable,” he warned, disabusing those conservative critics who accuse him of holding a Pollyanna-ish view of history. “It’s the result of choices we make together. And we face such choices right now. Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation…? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for?” This was genre-busting stuff. The annual presidential address to Congress is traditionally a wishlist of legislative business for the coming year, with, in the final year of a presidency, an additional trumpeting of the incumbent’s record”.

The piece notes that the speech had some of this by exhorting “Congress to approve the recently concluded Pacific trade agreement, pass legislation to authorise the ongoing American operations in Syria and Iraq and work on criminal-justice reform, one of the few remaining causes that has bipartisan support. He also noted many of his achievements; in presiding over impressive job creation, health-care reform and America’s first national effort at mitigating carbon emissions, for example”.

However the core of the speech, as the piece mentions was “an effort to stake out, ahead of Iowa, the ground for legitimate debate in a civilised society. America has not, Mr Obama ventured to suggest, gone to the dogs. Its economy is the envy of the world. Its armed forces are unrivalled. So is its global leadership. “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead—they call us.” On that basis alone, anyone promising extreme solutions to America’s problems should be mistrusted. And where they threaten the principles of fairness and rule of law, the basis of America’s strength, they must be disdained. “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” said Mr Obama, in a nod to Mr Trump’s promise of mass deportations and a blockade of Muslims. “This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong.” The job of politics is to settle finer debates, about the role of the state in apportioning wealth (“The American people have a choice to make”) and the exercise of America’s undimmed power. It was in this didactic spirit that Mr Obama defended his record. On the state, he argued that it was reasonable to worry about overburdening business with regulation, but illogical to reduce welfare payments, as most Republicans want, at a time of wage stagnation and rising insecurity for millions of workers”.

The writer adds that “On national security, he protested, in a tacit response to his many critics, that escalating the wars in which America is already embroiled will not make it safer; “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire…It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it’s the lesson of Iraq.” This was vintage Obama, disdainful of the tribal emotions that have subsumed American politics, cerebral, unrelentingly reasonable. No doubt, it reminded many of his critics, who represent around half of Americans, why they abhor him. Mr Obama said the one big regret of his presidency was that partisan divisions had got worse during the course of it; but America is in no mood for healing. Sitting behind Mr Obama, Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, wore the impassive expression of a man who dared show no flicker of approval for a president his party despises—even when Mr Obama denounced the business-throttling red tape it should hate even more”.

The writer continues “When Mr Obama claimed that America was not enfeebled militarily, many Republican congressmen emitted a scandalised gasp. Yet mainstream Republicans candidates such as Chris Christie and Mr Bush, none of whom has denounced Mr Trump’s vile politics half as effectively as Mr Obama, must quietly hope Republican voters imbibe his moral lesson, and reject the rabble-rousers. While he himself must pray that Democratic voters, 30-40% of whom are currently tempted to vote for Mr Sanders, will instead rally to Hillary Clinton who, because more electable, is much likelier to protect his legacy”.

Interestingly the writer goes notes that this is Obama’s weakness, “That, in turn, points to Mr Obama’s weakness, the other political context in which he spoke. The president’s decision not to recite the customary legislative to-do list—as notable by its absence as the victims of gun violence symbolised by a seat left empty next to Michelle Obama—was partly enforced. After a burst of bipartisan co-operation last year, including the overdue passage of a federal budget, he can expect little additional help from Congress. Whatever extra measures he hopes to burnish his record with, for example, to equalise pay between the sexes or increase the modicum of gun control he attempted this month, will probably have to be enacted by executive decree. So were many of his existing achievements, including changes to how laws on immigration are enforced. Although Mr Obama has not used his presidential powers half as profligately as his critics claim—his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both issued many more orders—his inability to get much legislation passed since the Democrats lost control of the House in 2010 has made his record unusually dependent on them. And given that most Republicans candidates vow to erase many of those orders, his legacy is one bad election result away from looking rather thin”.

The piece concludes “In his peroration, Mr Obama alluded to that frailty. In the absence of much enthusiasm for electoral reform in Congress, he promised to “travel the country” making his case for it. That desirable change, which he himself once promised to bring about, “will only happen when the American people demand it”, he concluded. As so often, he is right and admirable in his diagnosis. Still, it is hard not to be dismayed by the image he left hanging in the divided House, of the president, once the change politician, reduced to wandering America like a mendicant preacher, appealing forlornly to its better nature”.


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