A great deal of attention has been given to Barack Obama's eighth and final State of the Union Address. Some have opined whether he will be able to use the occasion to further his agenda, help set the stage for the next Democratic nominee, or whether his speech will help frame his legacy upon his exit from office. History has shown that few State of the Union speeches stand out for their ability to accomplish any of their goals.
From announcing his intention to run for President by invoking Abraham Lincoln or using the same Bible Lincoln used for his oath of office, Barack Obama has undoubtedly recognized the historical significance of being the first African-American president and has taken on policies designed to ultimately make his presidency one of historical significance, rather than a footnote. The Affordable Care Act and the recognition of gay marriage are two of the most consequential domestic policy changes in generations. He undoubtedly would like his final SOTU to tout his accomplishments and frame his legacy for the History books.
I cannot help but think his speech will do little to change the minds of those who support or oppose him. Much of the citizenry has had their minds made up whether they laud or loathe him for quite some time. A particularly telling example can be seen in President Obama's news conference on gun control last week. He recalled mass shootings in Blacksburg, Santa Barbara, Columbine, and Newtown. In doing so, he teared up and said "every time I think about those kids, it makes me mad."
This was a revealing moment. A rare moment where President Obama was vulnerable. Throughout much of his presidency Barack Obama has appeared aloof and disengaged. It is somewhat ironic that he is viewed as such a strong communicator. Apart from stump speeches (where he is indeed charismatic, emotive and hyperbolic) Barack Obama often sounds more like a constitutional law scholar (and a boring one at that). He works to get his points across in a very specific, analytical, and loquacious fashion. This appears to be part of his personality--calculating and self-aware.
To many, his tears revealed President Obama's human side. This is not something he has done much of during his presidency beyond shooting some hoops or selecting his NCAA brackets. And this is why the moment was particularly fascinating. While he was giving us a glimpse of his vulnerability, it looked as though he did all he could to maintain his composure--knowing that it could be used by detractors in all kinds of ways. This vulnerability has been quite rare for Barack Obama throughout his presidency.
His critics met the same moment with cynicism, disdain, and in some cases, anger. I was struck when scrolling through C-SPAN's coverage of the news conference one of the comments on their Facebook page stated that "every time I see this President, it makes me mad." That comment received hundreds of "likes" within a few hours. It should be noted that this comment appeared in reference to video footage captioned as "President Obama gets emotional while talking about #SandyHook."
Our government requires discussion, disagreement, discourse, and hopefully consensus. Yet the reaction to his news conference seemed to produce little in the way of helpful conversation to stem gun violence. Instead, much of it focused on the President himself and the antipathy many feel toward him.
I believe most Americans' minds have been made up on Barack Obama for quite some time. Most see what they want to see. Regarding his news conference, his supporters saw a family man, a sensible man, and a man who is looking to make reasonable changes regarding background checks on guns. His detractors saw a man who would capitalize on an event to violate the Constitution to support his own agenda. For the latter group, the words he used or the tears rolling from his eyes did not matter. Altogether, his "moment" will probably be of most significance to those who use it to fundraise (both for Democrats and Republicans) in the coming days. The same will likely be true for his final SOTU address.
That strident groups of Americans have had their minds made up on this president for so long makes me mad. To be fair, it makes me more sad than mad. We have a relatively small, but loud chorus of Americans who care so much they simply will not entertain any other view than their own. Conversely, we have far too many Americans who pay too little attention to goings-on and are apathetic about the political process.
Public opinion polls suggest that the country continues to be closely divided when it comes to support for Republicans or Democrats. Entering the final year of a two-term presidency, it is ironic that Barack Obama captured the nation's attention due to his emotional plea for Americans to come together not as red America or blue America, but for the United States of America when he was a State Senator from Illinois in 2004. And this is what makes me sad. Sad that we cannot do better. We are not "Rs" and "Ds," but we are indeed Americans, and there happens to be broad consensus on a number of seemingly intractable issues (like gun control).
We need "angry moderates" to stand up and be heard. Rather than simply reacting to Republicans or Democrats, it would be helpful to react to facts, policies, and solutions. It would be a welcome sign to have the two parties campaign for the votes of moderates. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen--especially during the primary season. Given the field of candidates, I fear the same will be true in the general election as well.