President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address last night. Below, I dissect and interpret it. Like any good essay delivered under pressure, it (and the address) starts coherent and then degenerates into something both less intelligible and ironically more meaningful. Without further ado, here are the "bullet points" of the address as I saw them.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is an extension of Social Security and Medicare
The easiest way to end the fights over "Obamacare" (perhaps second only to Obama returning to private life) is to link it with its broadly popular income security predecessors. President Obama's "legacy incentive" to try to shore up support for his touchstone achievement is obvious, but a subtler aspect to this ploy is that many Republicans and moderate Democrats are eager to find a framing of the policy that removes the ACA from the day-to-day partisan struggles.
After all, opposition to the very idea of Medicare used to be common within the GOP. In 2015, Medicare has broad bipartisan support — arguably because it is very popular, with 77 percent support as a "very important" federal program. Linking the ACA to Medicare and Social Security could quickly defuse the (so far) futile fights about repealing it.
Fight income inequality by lowering taxes
Explicitly stated as a hand across the aisle to Speaker Paul Ryan, the message here is simple: Tax reform and fighting poverty can go hand in hand. I doubt that we will see meaningful tax reform this year, but this is potential bedrock for such reform after the 2016 elections.
Signaling and framing a final year regulatory push
Following a bipartisan presidential script now more than 40 years old, President Obama pointed at the fences when he said, "I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there's red tape that needs to be cut."
This is presidential speak for, "I'm about to change some regulations."
After some (understandably and plausible) populist stage setting, he hinted at his goals by saying, "...this year I plan to lift up the many businesses who've figured out that doing right by their workers ends up being good for their shareholders, their customers, and their communities, so that we can spread those best practices across America."
Phew. If John Mayer were a hermeneutician, he'd write a song entitled "That Sentence Is a Wonderland." Suffice it to say, President Obama has reserved a few pages in the January 2017 editions of the Federal Register.
Then came the Joe Biden mixed metaphor
The awkward "global warming is real, but ain't cheap gas great?" part
Ain't democracy great? (I say, as I nod along the whole way in my Trans Am...)
Followed by the "let's transition away from cheap gas" part.
Man ... if you want to understand current national politics as perceived by Democrats, just parse this part of President Obama's monologue.
"My name is Barack Obama, and I AM the president."
Obama winked at Donald Trump when he rolled deep with this:
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. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that's the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us.
As someone who begins every day with an intelligence briefing, I know this is a dangerous time."
This reminds me of my favorite badass political movie quote, delivered by Michael Douglas in The American President.
The Middle East is complicated
Obama kind of just backed up a "detail truck" and dumped a bunch of assertions about the very complex strategies and dynamics in the fight(s) against ISIL/ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In the end, this is a nearly impenetrable issue for even the most engaged observers. In terms of what social science should be expected to predict (and, more recently, see this), note that if this weren't a complex issue, then itwouldn't be an issue, because we would have already won.
Iran, Ebola, Trans-Pacific Partnership, Cuba, Ukraine, Colombia, Africa, HIV/AIDS, malaria ... leadership!
As we enter the catchall phase, the only really notable aspect of this is the sideways shot at Trump about China and the claim that with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, "China doesn't set the rules in that region; we do."
Polarization, acrimony, redistricting, voter ID, income inequality, unequal access
Moving from "catchall" to "wish list," Obama basically returns to Michael Douglas's monologue, in which he said: "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad." True to form, Obama extended it a bit:
...my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.
It won't be easy. Our brand of democracy is hard.
Puts on shades, because the future is so bright
The speech's coda is wisely borrowed from the past: Things are good, and America will continue to shine. The president believes in us.
To be clear, I am no cynic. Regardless of which president says it, I believe in us too.
The State of the Union address is silly in all apparent ways. It's filled with platitudes and truisms. But, in line with The American President's description, democracy ain't easy. Working and fighting together is hard and fraught. That's why we listen to these platitudes, from both sides of the aisle, every year. In the end, and at this level, we are in this together. Ironically, this is why coming together to listen to a silly and seemingly unimportant message is important.