Last night, President Obama gave his final State of the Union speech. I want to take some time to reflect on his seven years in office, as he nears the finish line and the country readies itself to elect someone in November to succeed him. Confession: I have always been an Obama supporter. I was a canvasser on his 2008 campaign and a canvass director for his 2012 campaign. I made lifelong friends through both campaigns, and generally, I think that he has governed with an even hand and level-headed temperament. That said, there are certainly mistakes he made during both terms, and at the end of his speech, he acknowledged one of his biggest regrets, which I’ll address later in this post.
First, it is important to consider where the country was when President Obama was sworn in in January 2009. Unemployment was around 10 percent. The country was bogged down in Iraq, and Wall Street crashed the world economy. (Please, go see The Big Short!) Obama’s campaign caught fire because the country was wary of George W. Bush, who left office with an approval rating in the 30s. The genius of Obama’s first campaign could be found in its main slogan, “Yes, we can.” Simple, right? The country desperately needed optimism at the time, and here was a freshman senator from Illinois who toppled the establishment candidate in the primaries, Hillary Clinton. Here was a fresh young voice who promised to govern differently and change politics as usual. It was a message that resonated, and Obama had a sweeping victory in 2008, one which increased the Democratic Party’s majorities in the Senate and House.
Obama’s promise to change politics and heal the divide harkened back to his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, in which he said that America shouldn’t be divided by red states and blue states. At the time, I was in college and wrote for the student newspaper. After the convention, I penned an editorial stating that Obama was a rising star in the party, presidential material. Four years later, he ran and won.
Yet, perhaps it can be said that President Obama’s promises of change and altering the political landscape to bring the parties together was naïve. In 2012, it was reported that on the day of President Obama’s first inauguration, Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, new House Speaker Paul Ryan, former House Leader Eric Cantor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and others met to discuss how best to counter Obama. So just as his first term was beginning, the opposing party was deciding how best to stop his agenda.
The Republican’s main defense against the Obama Administration has been utter gridlock, especially after the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections, when they won control of Congress and a majority of state legislatures. Congress has not done much and has a dismal approval rating. By doing nothing, the GOP-led Congress has made it seem like government is totally inefficient. This has impacted the president, pulling down his approval rating, which has not climbed out of the 45 percent range much at all during both terms.
Still, the president managed to get re-elected again in 2012, by quite a large margin. If you look back on his seven years in office, there are a number of accomplishments. Unemployment is now around 5 percent. Gas prices are falling under $2 a gallon. Two progressive justices have been appointed to the Supreme Court. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. More Americans have health insurance. The auto industry is alive. Gay marriage is now legal, and recently, through executive action, new gun laws are on the books, including stronger background checks, which most Americans, including gun owners favor.
Last night, the president’s final SOTU address was meant to counter the pessimism and sour mood plaguing the country. Despite lower unemployment, Americans don’t feel like they’re getting a fair shake. The economic crash and the bailout proved just how rigged the game is. Meanwhile, wages have remained stagnant since the Reagan years. This is why Bernie Sanders has so much support on the left and why Trump is so popular on the right. People are mad, feeling as though the change the president promised in 2008, the message of “Yes, we can” never panned out.
Yet, Obama’s legacy is quite impressive. Still, though, Obama was naïve to think dissolving the divide in Washington would be easy, or even possible. Near the end of his speech last night, he admitted that one regret he has is that the political environment is just as bad or even more toxic than when got to the White House. He offered some solutions, such as campaign finance reform to get big money out of politics and ending gerrymandering. However, it’s not likely any of that will happen soon, especially in an election year.
Right now, the country is mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore. This is an election year in which anything could happen. Trump may very well be the Republican nominee and Sanders could beat Clinton. Latest polling shows him close to her in Iowa and beating her in New Hampshire, the first two primary states. Yet, voters would do well to remember where the country was in 2008. Certainly, we’re better off than where we were. Still, there is work to be done, especially on fairer wages and boiling racial tensions. The president also reminded Americans that in a Jeffersonian, representative democracy, citizen participation is a must. That is what the whole “Yes, we can” slogan was all about. In 2008, too many voters thought that electing one candidate who promised change would quell all of the country’s woes, but it’s more complicated than that. No candidate elected this November will be able to fix everything. That requires real citizen engagement, which is work. Is the country up to the task, or do citizens just want to be angry, vote for the loudest candidate, and then go back to being unengaged the day after the election?