President Obama delivered his eighth and final State of the Union address to Congress last night, and it was by far the strangest version of this event I’ve ever witnessed. Not strange in a bad way, mind you; it was actually refreshing not to hear a president make doomed proposals like “We will throw a rope around the moon and haul it down to light the rest of the world” while keeping track of who stands up and who doesn’t after the pat and patented applause lines. This thing was bereft of the usual theater, stripped of its extraneous parts like an old Harley junkwagon, made to cruise, and at times, to rumble.
The president was practically lounging on the podium like a dude leaning on his old beater Pontiac in the parking lot outside the bowling alley, holding court with a deck of smokes rolled up in his sleeve. He was loose, easy and mostly honest. The sad fictions that sustain us even as they devour us were salted throughout, of course – one does not become president of the United States without being a consummate bullshit artist – but the candor was noteworthy, as were the barbs.
Donald Trump took it in the teeth on a number of occasions, without being named once, as the president spoke on immigration, Muslims and the hollow nature of facile political bombast. Interestingly enough, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley followed suit in her rebuttal speech by touting her family’s immigrant heritage while extolling people to dismiss the angriest voices in the political conversation. She may as well have looked dead into the camera and said “Trump is a chump.” There was a definite Big Lebowski aspect to the evening: “Shut the f**k up, Donnie.” The message was not missed; Trump had a nice little Twitter meltdown before the dust had a chance to settle.
Climate change deniers, the anti-science crowd and the politicians who pruned the budget of research and innovation funding likewise absorbed a beating. “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” said the president. “We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.” God bless the speechwriters of the world, especially the varsity elite. It’s a hell of a hard thing to sum up a number of tangled complexities in a couple of pointed lines. This did that like a sniper shot.
Another moment that stands out vividly was when the president took responsibility for the blood feud that has come to define American politics, as if it were actually his fault. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency,” he said, “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
Personal note to the president: Speaking of fault, you never know where the fault lines are until the earthquake comes. Your election in 2008, and re-election in 2012, was an earthquake, and it exposed some very deep fissures in our so-called “post-racial” nation. The hate sprayed your way has been brewing for generations. Don’t take it to heart; Moses parted the Red Sea, but you ain’t Moses, and besides, that never happened. You have done many things while in office, some good and some bad. More than anything, however, you have served as a national Rorschach Blot for the people, a coming-to on who and what we really are. That will pay dividends down the road, believe it.
Of course, the terrible Trans-Pacific Partnership got a big verbal hug, as did yet another authorization of force for yet another war in the Middle East. Gun violence barely got a mention, which, given the staggering number of bodies that have hit the floor during this president’s tenure, was an astonishing omission.
In the main, there was a pathos to the speech that was palpable, a “Hey, I tried” vibe stitched throughout. Maybe it was the president’s body language, or simply the fact that the rah-rah nature of the average State of the Union address was absent, but there were long expanses of time last night when you could have heard a pin drop in that building. It was almost like some collective therapy session for the country, and the dour faces in the assembly showed it. The whole room looked as if they’d bitten into a particularly sour lemon, not because the speech was bad, but because the truth embedded in the delivery wasn’t the kind of thing you stand up and cheer for. None of those people went to bed last night feeling good about themselves. That, in itself, is a victory.
By tradition, the opening aria of a president’s State of the Union address always includes the line, “The state of our union is strong.” The president instead saved that line for the end, a muted huzzah. This was not a pep rally in the common fashion. This was candor, well timed, and very much needed.
President Obama is known for his oratorical skills, and specifically for the 2004 DNC speech that essentially got him his current job. In the fullness of time, history may well come to find his performance last night to be the most important of his political career. A fitting bookend, indeed.