As President Barack Obama delivered his seventh—and final—State of the Union address Tuesday night, I looked on with amazement that bordered upon disorientation. Did this really happen, a black president of the United States completing the circuit of his duties with a valedictory speech?
Or have I spent these past few years on htraE, a Bizzaro world where everything is oddly opposite of all that we know to be true on this planet? After all, it was only a decade ago that I—and, dare I say, nearly every other person on Earth—believed it impossible that this nation, conceived with chattel slavery endorsed in its Constitution, would ever elect a black American as its leader.
But there he stood before a joint assembly of Congress, grayer of hair and with creases deepening in his face, yet no less impassioned in his rhetorical belief that American values rule the world.
“Our brand of democracy is hard,” President Obama said, concluding his speech as if he were summing up his turn in the Oval Office. “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.”
Time has zipped by and so has the once unimaginable Obama administration. Now, as even Obama reluctantly acknowledges, the end is near and a new president will be elected in the fall. Yes, an impossible performance unfolded during the past seven years; it is now drawing to a historic end.
For those who have not been paying attention, 2016 is an election year and, in a real political sense, the president’s last State of the Union address served more as his outgoing terms of engagement for his party’s new standard bearer than his sayonara song. Writing for Agence France-Presse, the France-based global news service, Washington correspondent Andrew Beatty described Obama’s speech as perhaps “Obama’s last big opportunity to sway a national audience and frame the White House 2016 race.”
That it was. Now, almost exactly one year before he becomes citizen Obama, he returned to his mantra of “change,” an argument that thrust him into the national spotlight back in 2008, when then-Sen. Obama (D-IL) got the audacious notion that he might make history by becoming the nation’s first black president. And then did just that. Twice.
President Obama was elected and re-elected as the nation became increasingly aware of its demographic transformation. A new, rising majority of voters created the winning margin for his campaigns. At the same time, a backlash rose against the administration from those who feared “political correctness,” or, to be clear, the loss of the political, economic, and social standing they or others like them had long assumed as a birthright.
Yet Obama has triumphed, and he noted his accomplishments in the speech. But given this last-lap opportunity to gloat or chest thump, the president’s speech was notable for what it lacked as much as what it contained. Obama eschewed the conventions of his recent predecessors by declining to give a shoutout to the special visitors invited to sit in the upper gallery with First Lady Michelle Obama. He provided no laundry list of bills for Congress to pass and glaringly offered scant mentions of the hot-button topics of race and gun control that have been the stuff of recent headlines and White House concerns.
Instead, President Obama seemed to direct his remarks to two distinct groups that, oddly enough, play off each other. The first and most obvious group is U.S. voters, who will decide how politics will play out in the coming elections. The second group is future historians, who will write the account of his days in the White House.
Obama was his most eloquent self when he, looking directly ahead and into the television cameras, admitted that as president he could not change the way politics is played in Washington and across the nation. No, he challenged, voters must do the hard work of altering their behavior and expectations when it comes to civic participation:
If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. …
But I can’t do these things on my own. Changes in our political process—in not just who gets elected but how they get elected—that will only happen when the American people demand it. It depends on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.
If that happens, it will transpire in the years and decades following his administration. Perhaps, he will not get credit for it. But, as the president made clear, for America to have a future, it must heed this singularly specific call for improved civility in national politics.
If that does happen, the Obama years will be notable for far more than their racially symbolic, historical value. They will have made the nation stronger as it becomes increasingly diverse.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.