Watson Faculty Respond to Obama’s Final Address to Congress

An address not just to Congress, but to all citizens

Article II of the Constitution dictates few specific responsibilities to the president. Among them is the requirement to deliver the State of the Union to Congress. Thomas Jefferson disliked it because it reminded him of the British monarch’s annual State Opening of Parliament. He reduced it to a written report, which it remained until 1913. Although Woodrow Wilson rekindled the practice of coming to the Capitol to make the address, it has remained largely a mundane annual recitation of the president’s legislative agenda or plans for the year ahead.

President Obama’s final State of the Union was different. At times eloquent and inspirational, he addressed the nation about the state of our democracy itself. Beginning with the words from the Constitution, “We the people,” he focused on the poisonous extreme partisan polarization which so characterizes the nation’s current political environment. He warned that the bright future he sees for America can “only happen if we fix our politics.” He focused on the importance of moderation, negotiation, and compromise to the health of a democratic system, arguing that it requires “basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”

He decried the demonization of the political opposition so common in recent years not only in Congress, but in the media and the election process itself. He declared that our democracy will not work “if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic.”

Remarkably, this president, who came to office seven years ago acclaimed as the “post-partisan president,” took a full share of the blame revealing, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency 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…”.

It would be naive to believe that this one speech, or this president – now a lame duck operating in a presidential election year – will dent that political polarization for more than a moment in time. But he’s right when he lays the principal responsibility for changing the environment on the electorate itself. His message to all Americans was that whatever they may believe, whether they “prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on [Americans’] willingness to uphold [their] obligations as a citizen.” This doesn’t take politicians off the hook, but does recognize that left to the pressures and incentives of today’s political life, they will never effectively change it.

Presidents have fallen into the practice of telling the Congress that the state of the union is “strong.” Carter seemed to prefer “sound.” My favorite, for its frankness, was Gerald Ford’s declaration in 1975 that “the state of the union is not good.” Obama even managed to infuse new meaning by delivering the line as the aspiration climax of an excellent address, this time delivered more to the American people than to Congress, “[America is] optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That’s why I stand here as confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong.”

Rich Arenberg
Richard Arenberg

Adjunct Lecturer in International and Public Affairs and Political Science

The unspoken challenge ahead

President Obama delivered an excellent farewell speech, defending his record and demonstrating the progress America’s economy and foreign policy have made under his watch. Perhaps most notable was Obama’s choice not to reprimand Congress for their abject failure to do more to prevent gun violence in the US, despite the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Americans for Congress to act. Instead, Obama called for a change in our politics, and the political system itself, recognizing that the gun lobby is what causes Congress to continue to bury its head in the sand on this issue. The President rightly framed it in hopeful and uplifting terms, but that does not diminish the challenge ahead. 

Jeff Colgan

Richard Holbrooke Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies

International solutions are necessary to meet global security challenges

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama focused largely on domestic issues, but also acknowledged security challenges facing the US in accentuating his hallmark theme of multilateralism. Emphasizing the need for diplomacy and international solutions to address global challenges, he highlighted accomplishments of the Iran nuclear deal, opening relations with Cuba, forging the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate change accords, and halting Ebola in West Africa. For these and a host of other issues, American leadership and resources remain essential in mobilizing multilateral coalitions to address global problems.

Speaking at length about the most critical security threat to the US – terrorist networks, especially ISIL – President Obama reiterated the importance of international efforts to disrupt terrorist financing, recruitment, and safe havens, but called for a more realistic portrayal of the threat. Inflating ISIL’s influence and legitimizing their propaganda risks the same failed prescription of overreaction as the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” which ironically worked to the advantage of the global jihadi moment, setting the stage for ISIL and other terror networks. Recognizing ISIL for what they are – “killers and fanatics” – and are not – representative of the Muslim faith – is critical for effective responses that galvanize support of essential allies. What remained unstated, however, was the significant human misery resulting from ISIL’s actions, and the need to work with Iran and Russia in addressing the Syrian crisis.

Sue Eckert

Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs

What the president didn't say

"Last night, President Obama reassured lawmakers eager to return to the presidential campaign ('some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa') that he would make his final State of the Union 'a little shorter.' He promised to 'go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead.' Still, three issues were striking by their absence – cybersecurity, surveillance, and encryption." Read more on Lawfare

Timothy Edgar

Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs

Will Congress heed Obama's call for cooperation when it comes to the budget?

As was widely advertised ahead of time, President Obama's address tonight included more broad sweeping strokes than specific policy proposals, sounding more like an inauguration address than a typical State of the Union. One major focus was the President's exhortation of politicians to work together to solve problems, and (surprising though it sounds) we will see a clear test of whether this is possible in just the next six months. Of course, sweeping bipartisan reforms on contentious issues such as climate change or tax rates are unlikely, but we will see whether cooperation is possible on the most basic of government functions: passing a budget. It has been 20 years since the appropriations bills that direct federal spending have been signed into law before the end of the fiscal year (September 30). These perpetual delays lead to waste and unmet needs across government. Ending this streak should be easier than usual, since the President and Congress have already agreed on a total Budget for FY2017, and dividing the pie is all that remains. But with Congress as partisan as it is these days, I wonder if even something so staid as passing appropriations bills under "regular order" is possible. If they can't even get this done, what hope do we have for the really difficult issues?

John Friedman

Associate Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs

Noticeable absence of fear-mongering about Iran reveals success

President Obama addressed what he called the "big question" of how to keep America safe and strong within a complex and interdependent world. He argued that the "smart approach" is a patient and disciplined strategy that uses the full range of our national power rather than over-relying on military power. Iran is one of the success stories of that approach, and President Obama is justifiably proud. The US, along with other major world powers, accomplished an historic nuclear agreement which has persuaded Iran to agree to unprecedented UN monitoring of its nuclear activities, verifying their peaceful civilian purposes. What is noteworthy in Obama's State of the Union is the absence of the negative on this longtime adversary. At the very time of the speech, despite Iran’s holding in custody several US military personnel described by Iran as "snooping" when their vessels went into Iranian waters, the broader context of diplomacy has prevailed. The improved relationship between the US and Iran will mean the assured and timely release of the American naval crews. That is a staggering success that illustrates the efficacy of a patient and disciplined approach to American power rather than use of force against Iran. Given the negative, threat-centered attention Iran has consistently received in numerous State of the Union speeches over the last three decades – including the infamous “Axis of Evil” version from 2002 – at another juncture, the issue of US sailors held in Iran would have likely been used to provoke hostility and threat. The noticeable absence of the topic tonight is a good indicator of conflict de-escalation and supports what President Obama argued: that with the Iran nuclear agreement, the world has avoided another war. It's an example worthy of duplication.

Jo-Anne Hart

Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs

Too little too late? Realizing military might is not the answer

President Obama has clearly lost some of his confidence that the United States can make the world better by crashing violently into the affairs of other countries. He has come to realize that such interventions lead to long and costly occupations, periodic rebellions, and intense criticism at home and abroad. Obama has learned that when we shoot across someone’s borders, someone is likely to shoot back.

Trying to “take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis,” Obama said, is “a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us.” That is both correct and commendably candid. Obama said it was “the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq.” He did not mention—though he surely realizes—that it is also the lesson of his own two most disastrous interventions. The operation that led to the overthrow and murder of the Libyan dictator Muammar Khadaffy threw Libya into chaos and turned it into a base for terror across North Africa and beyond. Obama also meant well by intervening to rip Sudan apart and create a new nation, South Sudan, but that operation has greatly increased human suffering rather than alleviating it.

It is encouraging to see that Obama has come to recognize the folly of decapitating nations. The sad truth, however, is that this recognition only comes late in any presidency. Our next president will come into office at least as confident as Obama was in the ability of American military power to improve lives in other countries and make the United States safer. He or she will have to learn the same painful lessons all over again.

Stephen Kinzer

Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs

A rational view of foreign policy that does not reflect the fear and emotion of the people

President Obama devoted a significant portion of his final State of the Union address to articulating his philosophy on foreign policy. From a purely intellectual standpoint, many of his arguments were convincing. Despite instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Obama is correct to note that America’s position internationally is very secure, commanding as it does the world’s strongest military by a large margin. He is also right to point out that international terrorism poses a real challenge, but does not by any means threaten America’s survival or global position. As the President correctly argued, exaggerating the threat from ISIS plays into their hands.

Unfortunately, Americans’ views on foreign policy are often driven more by fear and emotion than by careful intellectual consideration. Americans are orders of magnitude more likely to die in car accidents or from run-of-the-mill gun violence than at the hands of terrorists. But this does not stop them from being deeply worried about terrorism, and no amount of reasoned argument from the President will change this. Likewise, Obama’s “patient and disciplined strategy” on foreign policy, which has resisted hawkish calls for escalation in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere, is intellectually sound but difficult to defend politically. Even though vital American interests are not at stake in these conflicts, it is easy for the President’s opponents to portray his prudent approach as irresolution or weakness.

When future historians look back at Obama’s foreign policy, they are likely to rate it highly. But it’s a hard sell in today’s political environment.

Nicholas Miller

Dean’s Assistant Professor of Nuclear Security and Policy, Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs, Assistant Professor of Political Science

If education is that important, community college must be free

As a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy, education is the lifeline not only for solving our biggest technological challenges, but also for sustaining a flourishing society that works for and serves everyone. This message ran through President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address. It was explicit when President Obama referred to the types of education that can and should take place in our classrooms. Investing in education means creating policies that enable the recruitment of the best teachers, teaching students computer coding, and cutting the cost of attending college. It also means making community college free for every student in good standing.

I hope the President’s agenda for creating free community college can be part of his Administration’s legacy. Making community college free will help enhance our nation’s supply of workers with technical skills and therefore foster continued economic growth. Making community college free will help more Americans get good jobs and support their families. The greatest demands in our labor market are for workers with the types of training offered through community colleges. Perhaps free community college training would even be available for adults looking to retool and retrain who cannot afford to pay their own way. Not providing free community college is cutting into our economic potential.

In addition to costing us economically, the lack of free community college is costing us socially. Making community college free will indirectly help us come together as One America. By providing low-skilled workers and their families with paths to better futures, it will help replace hatred and fear, fostered in part by blocked opportunity, with positive incentives and renewed optimism. Free community college is also at the heart of criminal justice reform: if accessible, it will help ex-offenders get on a path to reintegration and meaningful social and economic contribution. And by helping Americans overcome fear and hatred of one another, it will be easier for us to come together as a country, to extend respect and trust to everyone. It may even help some who might otherwise channel their skills into hate crimes or gun violence find an outlet for their own better future.

We, as Americans, believe that everyone should have the opportunity to work hard rise above the circumstances into which they were born. Certainly this is one policy on which we can all agree.

Jayanti Owens

Assistant Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs

Obama, FDR, labor, and power

Toward the end of his speech President Obama admitted that the growth of “rancor and suspicion between the parties” was one of the “few regrets” of his presidency, and averred that a “president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.” How little he remembers!

During Lincoln’s presidency, the country was literally cut in two by civil war. And in Madison Square Garden, on the eve of his first reelection, President Roosevelt declared that the forces of “organized money,” who had previously come to treat “the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs,” were “unanimous” in their hatred for him, and went on to admit that he “welcome[d] their hatred.”

What, then, really separates a Roosevelt from an Obama? I would assert that it’s not diplomacy but power; that is, the ability to organize people to offset the power of organized money. In Roosevelt’s time, these people came from the labor movement. Organized workers not only voted for FDR en masse; they got others to vote for him, made sure the elections were clean, and defended and benefitted from his policies—both individually and collectively—between elections, producing a virtuous circle of organization, empowerment, and reward.

To give but one example, on Election Day in 1944, more than 22,000 union members were involved in get-out-the-vote activities in New York City alone. And why shouldn’t they have been? When FDR took office, after all, 7 percent of American workers were union members; by 1944, that number had grown to 26 percent, and not only they but most of their non-unionized counterparts had gained access to Social Security, a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, and collective bargaining rights that would be exploited by millions more workers in the years ahead.

When President Obama took office, by way of contrast, union membership had fallen to 12 percent of the labor force and, unfortunately, it fell further on his watch. Private sector union density is well below 10 percent, and public sector unions seem poised to take a major hit if the Supreme Court rules their funding model unconstitutional this term. President Obama can thus talk about raising the minimum wage, or providing paid leave, equal pay for equal work, and wage insurance, for example, and he did so last night, but it’s not clear where the leverage for such a “fair deal” will come from. Who will not only support such measures but have the power to turn them into a reality? President Obama declared that American workers “need more of a voice, not less” in his speech. But on his watch, their voice has diminished, not grown, and that—rather than a lack of rhetorical ability—is what separates him from FDR.    

Andrew Schrank

Olive C. Watson Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs

Embracing diveristy and the role of government

President Obama’s final State of the Union address was at once a return to the themes of hope and unity that defined his 2008 campaign and a pointedly partisan speech that cast Republicans as the party of the past.  The president lifted up two themes throughout the speech.  The first focused on government action as key to preparing for a future in which all Americans can thrive.  The second highlighted America’s diversity a source of its strength.

The focus on the future allowed the president to define his own achievements – notably the Affordable Care Act – as commonsensical reforms.  Government action is essential to help workers adjust to a changed economy where, as he put it, only members of Congress can count on employment and retirement security.  The speech identified other public initiatives designed to chart a path toward a prosperous future: funding the National Institutes of Health to find a cure for cancer and supporting technical innovation to produce clean energy.  

At the same time, the president warned against a politics that rests on scapegoats.  He used humor to remind his audience that food stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis and that immigrants are not responsible for holding wages down.  

In highlighting a place for government in helping America meet the challenges of the future, Obama reframed a longstanding division between the parties.  In identifying diversity as an American strength, he offered a direct critique of the dominant themes of the Republican primary campaign.  The speech ended with soaring rhetoric reminiscent of the 2008 campaign, but also reflected the perspective of a president older and wiser.  Throughout the speech, the President took aim at the power of wealthy elites whose hold on government presents a central obstacle to crafting that future.

Margaret Weir

Visiting Professor of Political Science; Avice M. Saint Chair of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley