It was perhaps fitting that the most memorable passage of President Obama’s final State of the Union speech should come near its end.
After nearly an hour on the podium, Obama paused and slipped into a mode more suited to a pulpit. In the next few minutes, the president tried to address the state not of the American union but of American politics.
“Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise,” said the president. “Or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.”
Many ears were straining to hear attacks on specific figures, particularly among the Republican candidates to take over the White House. Was the comment about “peddling fiction” a poke at the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump? Was it possible the remark about “carpet-bombing civilians” was anything but a swipe at conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz?
Much of the immediate media coverage played up these barbs and others tossed at the 2016 presidential field.
But as Obama turned toward a conclusion — both to his speech and to his time in office — his tone shifted to sympathy with disillusioned voters:
“Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter, that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.”
The president’s suddenly earnest interlude included a kind of confession, or at least a concession of his own shortcomings.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency,” Obama said, “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
Having owned this moment of self-critique, Obama moved on to indict specific aspects of the nation’s current political machinery he has berated before.
“We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” said the president, prompting far more applause from the minority Democrats than from the majority Republicans, who benefit from their control of the district maps in most of the country.
“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,” the president added, prompting Vice President Joe Biden to leap to his feet behind him.
“And we’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now,” added Obama, sounding yet another seemingly innocuous theme that actually has a sharp partisan edge.
In general, Obama’s calls for greater bipartisanship and cooperation caused opponents to wag their heads, both during and after the speech. If he wants those things, some said, why does he go on to call his views “the right thing to do” or the test of “who we are as Americans”?
Indeed, Obama seemed at times to reach out and then, moments later, touch the very nerves he knew would react with partisan reflex — both in the chamber and beyond.
“What I’m asking for is hard,” Obama said, with a glint in his eye. “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.”
That much might be an observation most anyone could agree with. But the mood of the reaction changed as he continued:
“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 Democrats stood to cheer and applaud, the president’s pleadings seemed to have left the rest of the room unmoved. And so, in the end, his twilight effort at outreach seemed to fall short of the imagined connection.
Yet, just a few minutes later, after the president had left the Capitol, Americans still watching saw what for most was an unfamiliar face. It belonged to Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, a twice-elected 43-year-old who has been mentioned as a potential vice president in 2016.
Haley seemed to have caught some of the self-critical spirit of the moment, saying neither party was without fault for what had failed in American politics.
“We need to be honest with each other, and with ourselves,” said the young governor, eyes wide in the TV lights. “While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around.
“We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.”
One could almost hear a sharp intake of breath from many of the party faithful who had tuned in for a more partisan response to the president.
To be sure, Haley went on to criticize most all the salient points of the Obama presidency, from Obamacare to business regulation to education and tax policy. But her willingness to scold her own party, even slightly, was arresting under the circumstances.
Haley is best known for her intense but steady response to the shooting deaths of nine African-American parishioners in a historic Charleston church last year. That response included the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state Capitol in Columbia.
That move was well-received by most South Carolinians, but not all. And the same could be said of her remarks Tuesday night. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus was delighted with Haley’s speech, as were other party leaders. But there were also media commentators on the right who were displeased.
Talk show host Laura Ingraham, for one, tweeted it was “NOT SMART” for the GOP to stand apart from the current surge of populist anger about illegal immigration.
Haley, whose parents immigrated from India, saluted the American tradition of “welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion … just like we have for centuries.
“I have no doubt that if we act with proper focus, we can protect our borders, our sovereignty and our citizens, all while remaining true to America’s noblest legacies,” she said.
Haley seemed as interested in replying to Donald Trump as to President Obama. Or at least that was the widely repeated interpretation of these remarks:
“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”
In the days before the State of the Union, Haley had said she was preparing a speech of her own, not a response to Obama. In the end, her contribution seemed to dovetail with much of what the president had said near the end of his own speech.
The White House had promised that Obama’s final State of the Union speech would be “nontraditional,” forsaking the usual focus on the year just past and the year just ahead, charting instead a longer course taking the nation further into the future.
The speech began with a bit of humor, assuring the presidential candidates in the audience that they could get back to Iowa soon. The president also thanked the new Speaker, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, for his concerned effort to address poverty. (Ryan, who smiled at the president’s arrival, spent most of the next hour in a fixed expression of mild amusement, and rarely applauded.)
At another moment in his speech, Obama won a standing ovation for naming Vice President Joe Biden to head a new national commission to cure cancer.
But through most of the 58 minutes he spoke, Obama focused on the business of the issues. And as he did so, he clearly raised the hackles of those occupying most of the House and Senate seats arrayed before him.
Following the speech, Cruz said he had no regrets about staying on the campaign trail in New Hampshire while the other senators running for president were in their places in the Capitol.
“This was less a State of the Union than a state of denial,” Cruz said.
According to him, the president had proved how out of touch he was by not mentioning the 10 sailors being detained by Iran after their boats drifted into Iranian-claimed waters on Tuesday. The White House had said prior to the speech that arrangements were being made for the sailors’ release.