IN HIS FINAL State of the Union address to Congress, President Barack Obama created an image of his legacy and appealed for bipartisanship to carry it forward.
Key, divisive achievements of the Obama administration were brandished
“Tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead.” This set the tone for what Obama has unconventionally used the address: to herald his own achievements in office, rebutting his usual GOP critics and, more sensationally, Donald Trump, whilst ironically mobilising the former to work with him.
Key, divisive achievements of the Obama administration were brandished to the Republican-led chamber. This included the stimulus package that arguably brought the US out of recession; the healthcare reforms that GOP presidential hopefuls are now in-fighting to repeal; and the state-provided healthcare for veterans, being of an even higher quality than the UK’s NHS.
Nonetheless, Obama’s call for cooperation between Democrats and Republicans was unmistakable. The president took an unusual, fiscally conservative tone of acknowledging “outdated regulations that need to be changed” and “red tape that needs to be cut”. This presents a longing of Obama’s to find common ground as a means to push forward more legislation than usual, having previously been criticised of failing to negotiate with the GOP-dominated legislature. The president even praised the interests of new Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis) in tackling poverty, suggesting a warmer relationship between the two leaders than was the case with former Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In acknowledging the 2016 presidential race, Obama invoked the words of Pope Francis to undermine Donald Trump: “To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” As a clear quip of Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from the United States, the president then stated “when politicians insult Muslims… it diminishes us in the eyes of the world.” This was a clear call for internationalism as a means of combating ISIS, dispelling Trump’s credibility as a world leader in the process.
“I won’t let up until they get done,”
Perhaps more poignant was the empty chair beside First Lady Michelle Obama. This was employed by the president to honour the absent lives of victims of gun crime. Despite this, the issue of gun control was only mentioned once. He referred to it eight times in his 2013 address, months after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, but Obama now seems to be prioritising bipartisanship at all costs – even if that means limiting the whims of the powerful NRA.
However, partisan employment items such as equal pay, paid leave and raising the minimum wage were still firmly placed on the agenda as the president’s end of this bipartisan bargain. The refrain “this new economy” was cited as presenting a greater need for federal intervention. “I won’t let up until they get done,” Obama claimed in regard to these items. If true, this presents a break from tradition that outgoing presidents become “lame ducks” in their final years in office (vulnerable and weak).
Before his term is over, expect President Obama to rush through as much legislation as possible. The nature of this legislation, however, will be much less certain. Indeed, whilst his State of the Union address gives us a limited indication as to what exactly the president will do, this gives him more room to surpass divided government and get things done. However, Obama’s desperation to do this may simply play straight into the hands of his Republican colleagues.