State of the Union 2016

So, last night, President Obama gave his final State of the Union address before both houses of Congress, with Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan sitting behind him:

The Washington Post has a full transcript of the address.

I live-tweeted it, with my typical mix of sarcasm and seriousness. I have Storified those tweets, if you want to see them.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley delivered the Republican rebuttal, and it was just as terrible as you'd expect, although her delivery was much better than the usual doofus they trot out for it. If this was indeed an audition for the veep slot on the GOP ticket, she nailed it.

Obama's final SOTU was, for me, almost a perfect encapsulation of what I have liked and not liked about his presidency. Too much emphasis on "fighting terrorism" and the military; too little emphasis on poverty and women and race.

But, despite my disagreements with President Obama, I have come to like and admire him very much, and I'm going to miss him when he's out of office. I trust him, at least as much as I can trust any US president and more than most. Certainly more than any other president in my lifetime.

I found parts of his speech deeply moving, and this part particularly affected me:
Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise or when even basic facts are contested or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn't matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.

Too many Americans feel that way right now. It's one of the few regrets of my presidency -- that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
It hurts my heart that President Obama, who pursued and vaunted bipartisanship to a fault early in his presidency, say that he blames himself, that he somehow failed, because partisan vitriol increased during his tenure. That is not his fault, and it is not his failure.

I think I know why he feels that way, though. He came to office with a certain amount of overconfidence that he was going to be able to fix Washington, and a certain naïvete born of his formative experience in Chicago, where the Republicans are frankly a different breed than they are in DC. And it's very easy when one has been arrogant about a situation to then feel like one failed, if that situation is not resolved, or gets even worse. Even, and maybe especially, when one ultimately couldn't control the outcome.

The mistake that he made was not seeing it sooner. But I don't know that if he had, it could have made an enormous difference. The Republicans were determined to be obstructionist, and the conservative base was determined to hate him. It would have made a difference to his supporters, which might have keep people engaged, and maybe that was a missed opportunity, but he had other opportunities to get and keep people on his side, and he made the most of them.

But I get why he feels responsible, even if I wish he didn't. I relate to it. I imagine any person who has been full of piss and vinegar about their own abilities, only to be humbled and realize they can't accomplish on their own what they thought they might, can relate to this president's regrets. It's one of the universal experiences of maturing, of learning, of personal growth.

And this president, President Barack Obama, has become a better person while in office. It's visible, and it's extraordinary. While most presidents leave the office far more cynical than they arrived, his heart has seemed to grow and grow. He is filled with even more empathy and optimism than when he arrived.

His speech ended thus, with his voice catching in his throat:
We need every American to stay active in our public life and not just during election time so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day.

It is not easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that, a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness, that have helped America travel so far.

Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino; not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not Democrat or Republican; but as Americans first, bound by a common creed.

Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word -- voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love. And they're out there, those voices. They don't get a lot of attention. They don't seek a lot of fanfare, but they're busy doing the work this country needs doing.

I see them everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours. I see you, the American people. And in your daily acts of citizenship, I see our future unfolding.

...That's the America I know. That's the country we love. Clear- eyed, big-hearted, undaunted by challenge, optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That's what makes me so hopeful about our future.

I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people. And that's why I stand here, as confident as I have ever been, that the state of our Union is strong.
I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.

The terrible truth is that it is frighteningly easy to change the country, for the worse. Fly a plane into a building, pick up a gun and start shooting, set off a bomb. The country will change, almost in an instant. It's much harder to change the country for the better, because it necessitates inspiring change within people who are profoundly resistant to it.

This president promised to change the country, and he feels in some way like he failed to deliver. But he changed.

There aren't many men with an enormous amount of power and influence who become wiser and more compassionate, who retain their optimism and expand their decency, who speak with sincerity about unconditional love. Who can be funny and fierce and vulnerable, in front of an entire nation, in front of the world. Who let us see all of it, let us see that they have changed, and show us that to be changed, and to change ourselves, is a strength.

President Obama has challenged me to change, and I have.

I hope his words and his example, as he embarks on his final year in office, urges us to a place where we seek change by looking inside ourselves.

Because we are the hope and change we've been looking for. We always have been.

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