The president was at his strongest when -- in a clear rebuke to billionaire presidential contender Donald Trump and his fellow Republican contenders -- he decried the anti-Muslim rhetoric of billionaire presidential contender Donald Trump and his fellow contenders.
"[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," said Obama. "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 whether abroad or our fellow citizens, 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."
Extending on that theme, as part of a substantial discussion of foreign policy, Obama argued for diplomacy and global cooperation rather than more wars. This was not an anti-war address, but it was a speech that argued against the sort of indiscriminate and ill-thought war making proposed by the likes of Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
While the president used a good deal of his address to acknowledge the reality of the race to replace him, he also reminded Americans that he has a year to lock in accomplishments and to initiate progress that will extend into the tenure of the next president -- whether that president is a Democrat or a Republican.
So it was that, while Obama detailed the successes of his presidency, he also laid out a fresh vision. At the heart of this State of the Union address was an argument that America can meet the challenges posed by a technological revolution, globalization, climate change, and threats to domestic and global security by recognizing opportunities to change and grow as a nation.
In the key section of the speech, Obama said:
"We live in a time of extraordinary change -- change that's reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world. It's change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It's change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.
"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. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the 'dogmas of the quiet past.' Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America's promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did -- because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril -- we emerged stronger and better than before."
That's a grand vision, which is worthy of pursuit.
The pursuit will not be easy, however.
This president must work with a Republican congressional opposition that has taken obstructionism to extremes. That opposition continues to seize on every opening to attack and ridicule Obama; on Tuesday, Republicans sought to exploit tensions following the brief detention by Iran of the crews of two small US Navy patrol boats that reportedly drifted into Iranian territorial waters.
The task will be made even more difficult if the president focuses his energies on advancingthe fundamentally-flawed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Congressional Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the agreement, as do many Republicans. If Obama squanders his last year trying to cobble together a coalition of corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats to vote against the best interests of working Americans and the environment, he runs the risk of creating deeper divisions -- not just between parties but within them -- and he might still lose the TPP fight.
The better strategy is to focus on uniting the Democrats behind popular initiatives, such as a minimum-wage hike or initiatives to address the crushing burden of student-loan debt, and to take advantage of election-season jitters to convince vulnerable Republicans to do the right thing. The combination of a bully pulpit and an election year can be a powerful one for a savvy president, and Obama is savvy.
But if it is not possible to build coalitions to do the right thing, Obama has other tools. His increasing comfort with the use of executive orders is significant, as it allows Obama to make immediate and popular policy shifts that will be hard for a successor to undo. The president should be just as comfortable using his veto power. And he should employ every opportunity to make appointments and to fight for the approval of those appointments where it is required.
These are the tools available to any president. But they are only of value when a president is ready to use them, rather than to slip away into a diminished lame-duck status.
Obama's final State of the Union address signaled a determination to use those tools. Progressive and responsible Americans should be excited by this prospect. Barack Obama says he wants to do great things in the final year of his presidency. That's great news for everyone who recognizes that, while the 2016 presidential race may be exciting, the person best positioned to achieve progress in the country in 2016 is not a candidate. It is the sitting president, who in 2012 was reelected with a popular vote and Electoral College mandate to serve a full four-year term. A quarter of that second term remains, and Obama has indicated that he is ready to make something of it -- in Washington and on the 2016 campaign trail -- as a president who remains "optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."Copyright - 2015 thenation.com -- distributed by Agence Global