Many Americans loved President Obama’s Tuesday night State of the Union address. Many others hated his speech. But based on social media, few of us were ambivalent.
There was a lot to applaud in the president’s speech. It featured lofty, even pristine rhetoric. It evoked singularly American ideals about our leadership position in the world and unique culture of excellence. And it honored our nation’s commitment to equal opportunity, regardless of skin color, gender or sexual preference. But if you take a more nuanced view of President Obama’s achievements on social issues, as I do, or voted for a Republican member of Congress in the last election, you may have found yourself talking back to your TV or making your counterpoints in the Twitter-sphere.
For me, the finest moment of Tuesday night’s speech was the focus on race. Balancing every parent’s desire to keep their children safe with our collective recognition of the day-to-day dangers faced by police officers, the president took an emotionally-laden and contentious issue and beautifully captured it, evoking shared empathy.
On divisive social issues, he came out swinging hard. From abortion to LGBT rights, President Obama forcefully promoted his progressive views. For those who share these views and vote based on them, it was a terrific speech.
And for those that, at best, want to expand the national social safety net, or less idealistically, simply want the government to give them more, it was a delightful cornucopia including tuition-free community college, paid sick leave, higher minimum wages and lower taxes for the middle class.
In many ways, the president’s 2015 State of the Union address was emblematic of his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention – the idea of one America, rather than blue states and red states. Tuesday night, in a nod to his base supporters, President Obama returned to this idea repeatedly.
Leading up to his address, I was hopeful the president would be thinking about his legacy and how he could work with Congress to pass meaningful legislation designed to foster economic growth in his last two years in office. This means finding common ground, reasonable negotiation and compromise. Instead, I felt President Obama came to Congress and stuck his finger in their collective eye with a series of proposals on issues like taxes, minimum wage and sick leave that have no chance of passage.
The president made no mention of domestic proposals that already have the benefit of bipartisan support and a chance for compromise and passage, such as implementing immigration reform for highly-skilled workers and stopping patent trolls from extorting innovators. “Bipartisan” was not a word we heard much of last night, though he did use it twice when he spoke about investment in infrastructure – a serious issue that deserves more than a few throwaway lines in an otherwise divisive speech.
More, the president never took responsibility for or even mentioned the growing federal debt, which has ballooned by 50 percent under his tenure. Instead, he skirted the issue, saying deficits have come down under his leadership. Sure, deficits came down from the incredible record high he set – but that’s like a banker claiming innocence because he embezzled less money than he did in prior years.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the president’s speech was unscripted. In response to his comment that he will not be running for office again, a couple of audience members – probably Republican congressmen – applauded. Looking away from the teleprompter, President Obama cracked, “I know, ‘cause I won both of ‘em.” This lit up social media on both sides of the aisle. For Obama supporters, it was a brilliant impromptu line reflecting wit, intellect and verve. Republicans, however, had a different view. He was speaking to the members of Congress, all of whom won their last election, and in November the electorate overwhelmingly chose Republicans. Americans voted this new crop of legislators into office, but the president’s off-the-cuff comment implied he doesn’t care about their views or the views of those who voted for them.
President Obama’s strategy of dividing the nation and antagonizing congressional Republicans is perplexing. Perhaps he trying to egg on Republicans who oppose his big government proposals, or maybe he’s trying to define the landscape for the next election. Maybe he simply wants to cement his place in history as a man who never compromises.
Whatever the reason, if President Obama wanted to deflate those of us who think Washington should work in bipartisan fashion to solve big problems, he has succeeded. All we can do now is set our sights on 2016, an opportunity to unite and elect a president who can parse out the big-picture issues from the bipartisan rhetoric.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.