For better or worse, President Obama's final State of the Union address was not the transformationally different event it had been promoted as. It contained the same callbacks to notable administration accomplishments and dutiful recitation of policy proposals that every State of the Union does.
But the last State of the Union still matters, even if it's not particularly surprising. And this was a better-delivered address than most. Obama can't achieve everything with mere rhetoric, but he can use it to bolster political allies, undermine opponents, and express solidarity with key constituencies. And, of course, his attempts can backfire. Here's who came out ahead Tuesday night — and who took a hit.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
Obama has avoided directly intervening in the Democratic primary, even as he and his team obviously prefer Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders. But he's surely noticed that the candidates offer two starkly opposed narratives. Clinton's is, "Things are generally good. We need improvements here and there, on family leave and the like, but in general the best course of action is to continue the Obama administration's approach domestically." Sanders's narrative, by contrast, is deeply pessimistic: Inequality's rising, the rich hold all the political power, and only a wholesale political revolution can save us.
Intentionally or not, the State of the Union served as a stirring endorsement of the Clinton narrative and rejection of the Sanders narrative. Obama emphasized positive trends in the economy and American accomplishments abroad; he readily conceded more work needed to be done, but mostly stuck to the mild policy proposals he's included in his recent budgets. As the leader of the party, he effectively told Democratic voters watching that the authentically Democratic position is that things are looking good and need to be maintained. That's a message that the Clinton camp wants primary voters flirting with Sanders to hear.
Winner: Donald Trump
The speech was peppered with not-so-veiled references to the Republican presidential frontrunner, none complimentary. There was this allusion to Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan:
America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control.
Emphasis mine. Obama also strongly condemned prejudice against Muslims, exemplified in recent months by Trump's calls to ban Muslim immigration:
That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith. His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I stand tonight that "to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place." When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.
Again, emphasis mine. On the face of things, these are insults that should hurt Trump's standing. But of course, there's nothing Trump wants more than to be seen as Obama's worst nightmare, as the sworn enemy of the man Republican primary voters think is destroying America. And regardless of the persuasive effect of Obama's comments, they solidify Trump as a de facto leader of the Republican party, a figure to whose arguments the president must respond. That's a rather large compliment to pay Trump.
Winner: Muslim Americans
That's not to say that it was wrong for Obama to slag Trump. Quite the contrary — his condemnation of Islamophobia was by far the most stirring moment of the night, a powerful expression of solidarity with a marginalized community in America at a time when they are under threat more than ever, not least from Trump and his followers.
Obama is not the first president to take on this role. George W. Bush did an excellent job of emphasizing that violent Islamist terrorism is a fringe movement within Islam and does not speak for the religion as a whole or for its billion-plus followers worldwide, including those in the US. That was crucial after 9/11, a time when a more demagogic leader could've whipped up racial animus and scapegoated American Muslims.
Now Islamophobia has reached a level that arguably surpasses even that of the post-9/11 period, a situation that demands a response from the highest levels of government. Obama's comments Tuesday night, while hopefully not the entirety of that response, are still an immensely helpful contribution.
Foreign policy is one area where Hillary Clinton can be expected to deviate markedly from Obama. She was the more hawkish of the two in the 2008 race, and she was a reliably hawkish voice as secretary of state, expressing support for the Afghanistan surge when others in the administration were opposing it and pushing for greater intervention in Syria. Out of office, she attacked Obama's record, insisting, "Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle."
So Obama used his final State of the Union to articulate his foreign policy organizing principle, and make the case for it over Clinton's liberal hawkishness. And he couched his skepticism about military adventurism in nationalist rhetoric. America, he insisted, is the world's strongest country on Earth, bar none. No other country can genuinely threaten us. ISIS and al-Qaeda certainly don't pose existential threats. So we shouldn't waste blood and treasure on massive invasions and occupations when those actions serve no security purpose.
"We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis," Obama declared. "That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us."
Just as important, Obama articulated an alternative, arguing that his track record has proven that aggressive diplomatic entreaties can better accomplish the goals his opponents seek to achieve through war. Multilateral negotiations disarmed Iran, whereas airstrikes never really could. Isolating Cuba only entrenched its dictatorship further; opening it through talks, as Obama did, exposes it to foreign investment and visitors and actually helps everyday Cubans. And multilateral collaboration can solve problems that military action by definition cannot, like fighting Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and malaria.
Obama may not be succeeded by a fellow dove. But he leaves office having made the best possible case for the dovish tradition in American foreign policy, and leaving a tradition in which future politicians skeptical of military adventurism and enthusiastic about multilateral institutions can follow.
Loser: Paul Ryan
One consequence of Obama's toxicity as a figure among Republicans is that he can discredit members of that party merely by standing a bit too close to them. Case in point: his bear hug of House Speaker Paul Ryan tonight, followed by a quick allusion to their agreement on expanding the earned income tax credit for childless workers.
It called to mind Obama's hug of Chris Christie in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. That associated Christie too closely with the White House for conservative voters' comfort, and its effects are lingering more than three years later as Christie runs for president. Intentionally or not, Obama's chummy attitude toward Ryan could serve to reinforce doubts among House conservatives in the wake of the 2015 budget deal, which Ryan negotiated in secret with Democrats and where he made a number of Democratic tax policies permanent.
It's unclear if most disarray in the House GOP ranks actually helps Obama, and this is only one speech. But Ryan certainly wasn't helped by Obama's friendliness.
Loser: Congressional Democrats
"Everything's going pretty well" is a compelling message if you're a lame-duck president hoping to bolster his legacy. It's less compelling if you're an ally of that president who still needs to win reelection and is left without a compelling positive agenda. That was the problem Tuesday night for House and Senate Democrats. While they reliably applauded the president's remarks, he left them in a tough place.
For one thing, he didn't even mention them. He included several veiled and not-so-veiled entreaties to Republicans in Congress, including calling out Ryan by name. That makes sense: They control both houses of Congress, and any legislative progress over the next year will necessarily require their support. But having Democrats in the minority makes it fairly easy to take them for granted and not even give them a nod.
More importantly, though, Obama's main argument was that the current economic and political trajectory of the country is broadly positive even as Republicans control Congress, and where the trajectory isn't positive, the problems lie in the nature of our political discourse: interest group capture, gerrymandering, etc. The natural takeaway from this message for voters isn't, "Let's elect a bunch of Democrats to do little besides maintain this status quo." The takeaway is, "Things are good with Republicans in charge of Congress, though politicians as a class are kind of corrupt regardless of party."
It'd be much better for congressional Democrats to be able to go home and stoke concern about things the Republican majority is doing, and argue that the only way to get things on track again is to elect Democrats. "Things are awesome but you should throw the bums out anyway" is a bit less persuasive.