President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address was nominally about "the next five years, 10 years, and beyond." But its more profound story is a revisiting of the Obama the American people first met in 2004, who offered an optimistic, liberal, and pluralistic vision of American identity to a Democratic audience that desperately wanted to believe his vision of America was the real one.
From the floor of the Fleet Center in Boston at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama delivered a fascinating speech that was strangely — and delightfully — at odds with the main message the party was delivering that convention week.
The 2004 campaign, as most Democrats saw it, came down to issues versus identity. On issues, Democrats could win. The public didn't want huge tax cuts for the rich. The public didn't want to privatize Social Security. But George W. Bush had identity on his side — white, male, Southern, Christian, militaristic, and homophobic in a country where John Kerry could only waffle and equivocate on the war and the Federal Marriage Amendment.
But Obama's speech was about identity, and slyly so. It was nominally a speech about national unity between the red states and the blue states, but in reality the very pluralism and ecumenism of Obama's vision of America was itself a partisan statement. For the red/blue divide posits a false symmetry. There isn't — and wasn't — a single, unitary Blue America facing off against the Red Team, with red and blue together reflecting diversity. Instead, diversity and pluralism is the signal quality of the blue vision of America — it's the place where you find the Muslims and the Jews and the atheists, the immigrants and the descendants of slaves.
It was, at the time, stirring and provocative — and largely stirring because it was provocative. Liberals would have liked to believe that Obama was right and theirs was the real, true America. But it wasn't yet clear that they had the audacity to believe it.
Tuesday night, Obama revisited these once-hopeful themes from a position of strength. Near the end, the central subtext of the 2004 speech was rendered as text. It's not that red and blue are one America; it's that the diverse and forward-thinking America is the best and truest America:
Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen — inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.
Much of the speech, of course, was dedicated to the news of the day and the controversies of the past seven years. A time traveler from that Boston convention would, of course, be fascinated to learn of the financial crisis and the health care bill, and saddened to hear that America was still bogged down in Middle Eastern warfare. But he would have been downright shocked by the paragraph with which Obama summed up his record of accomplishment:
In fact, it’s that spirit that made the progress of these past seven years possible. It’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. It’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector; how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans, and how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.
Obama said not only that he favored equal marriage rights for LGBTQ and straight couples, but that such rights had already been achieved. And not just achieved, but achieved as the crowning example of the spirit that underlays all the accomplishments of his administration.
And Democrats stood and clapped for it. Not just the ones from New York and California but the ones from Missouri and Virginia and Ohio, too. The underlying structure of public opinion on this issue has completely transformed over the course of Obama's relatively brief time in the national limelight, and paired with the historic election of a black president it's given liberals an extraordinary spring in their step.
Obama mentioned policies in his speech, and of course policy is and always will be central to what politics is all about. But his key moments were about reclaiming the mantle of American identity for liberalism. He didn't so much defend his economic policy record as defend the United States, saying simply, "America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world," and daring Republicans not to clap.
Later he repurposed the theme to talk about foreign policy:
I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world.
Elsewhere in the speech, Obama, in so many words, proclaimed Donald Trump to be the real leader of the political opposition. And whether Trump ultimately wins or (more likely) loses the Republican nomination, it's clear that his nostalgia-drenched promise to Make America Great Again resonates with millions of people.
But as he closes his term in office, Obama is closing the loop on the redefinition of American identity with which he launched his career, identifying himself firmly with the interests and sensibilities of those who believe that today's America — the America of "the DREAMer who stays up late to finish her science project" and "the protester determined to prove that justice matters" and "the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is" — is the greatest version of America that history has ever seen.