In his final State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama reminded the country that optimism and hope are the tried-and-true American responses to hard times and to demagogues. Although he didn’t refer to a specific Republican candidate by name, it was clear that in attempting to return to the grand philosophical vision that defined the hope of his original campaign, Obama’s remarks were aimed at those battling to occupy the White House after he leaves next January.
“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation and turning against each other as a people?” Obama asked. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for and the incredible things we can do together?”
The president appealed for unity and inclusion. And, refreshingly, he refrained from offering a long list of initiatives that no one believes will get off the ground in this election year.
But when he cited “one of the few regrets” of his presidency — “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better” — he seemed to ignore his own role in contributing to the calcifying gridlock in Washington and the retreat of liberals and conservatives into two warring camps.
Obama’s handling of partisan battles in such areas as the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal, the stimulus package and how to respond to gun violence was not a model of congeniality, cooperation and compromise. Instead, his mistiming, miscues and mismanagement promoted partisan rancor and distrust, even as both sides may have been trying to address real issues and concerns. Thus, while we applaud Obama’s expressed concern about the fear and anger that characterizes so much of what passes for civil debate today, we are troubled that he appears to have completely ignored that the way he went about the job of president contributed to making such fear and anger possible.
Obama’s aspirational rhetoric of 2008 promised Americans hope and change. His last State of the Union address promised Americans an optimistic future. Both are important and worthwhile messages. The president has had seven years to build hope, effect change, promote optimism and to work in a bipartisan manner. He needs to do a better job in his remaining year in office.