For months, President Obama and the White House have brushed aside most questions about the Republican campaign to replace him. But, after the president’s final State of the Union address, it is clear that he has been listening. Closely. And, with 30 million people watching on television, he decided it was time to fire back at some of his harshest critics.
He didn’t do it by name. That wouldn’t have been presidential in this quintessential presidential occasion. But there wasn’t much doubt that he was taking aim at Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, the two GOP front-runners, and the other candidates who spend so much time in Iowa and New Hampshire talking about American decline, economic mismanagement, and feckless stewardship of foreign policy.
Obama also did something presidents rarely do, admitting failure—on the goal he first set in a memorable 2004 keynote address to the Democratic convention, to bring people together. Instead, he confessed, “rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better” on his watch. With this admission, he tried to address the populist fury that has characterized so much of Campaign 2016.
Maybe this was the right place for a president to inch closer to an acknowledgement that much of the nation is clamoring to overthrow the political and government establishment. Here, after all, was that same establishment gathered together in shared disdain, the Congress with its paltry 13 percent approval rating and the president with his less-than-robust 45 percent. Maybe the State of the Union address was the time and place for a president who will never face angry voters again to plead with those who aspire to replace him to elevate their campaigns, to wage “rational, constructive debates.”