No Hope for Greatness

In his final State of the Union address, Obama urges Americans to fulfill his failed promise.

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In a rare embrace of failure and humility, Barack Obama said Tuesday night that “one of the few regrets of my presidency” is the fact that partisan rancor has worsened under his watch. The president seems to finally realize that breaking the founding promise of his political career will hurt him in the eyes of history.

In his final State of the Union address, Obama called for “a better politics,” saying the nation’s large and lingering problems can only be solved if Americans “can have rational, constructive debates.”

Had it been delivered by a presidential candidate, the speech would have been tremendous. But in the hands of a time-worn leader seven years into a presidency that began with such promise, Obama’s sentiments were sadly familiar, almost hollow: well-written and well-intentioned but, like the balance of his presidency, a disappointment.

There were loud echoes of the 2004 Democratic convention speech that launched Obama’s national political career, of his 2008 campaign stump speech, and of his fading pleas for bipartisanship that made cameos in each of his State of the Union addresses. His most famous lines, lyrical and lifting prose at the time, now seem sadly naïve to his allies and ruthlessly cynical to his critics. From old quotes like this:

“We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states.”

“In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?

“We are the change that we seek.”

And, especially: “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists—to protect them and to promote their common welfare—all else is lost.”

For all the progress Obama claimed as his own Tuesday night—much of it hard-earned and deserved—he can’t escape this ugly fact: The public has less faith in politics and government today than when he started.

One might say, as Obama did, all else is lost.

To be fair, faith-in-government ratings had been in decline for decades before Obama took office. Plus, the guy inherited a mess. Republican Party leaders vowed to cripple Obama’s presidency from the start, and shifts within the GOP made compromise virtually untenable.

President Clinton’s sex scandal and the polarizing presidency of George W. Bush left the public divided and cynical. Americans were both hungry for the change Obama promised and ill-equipped to help him deliver it.

The nation’s first African-American president also faced opposition rooted in racial intolerance, the nation’s original sin inflamed once again by demographic upheaval.

Finally, there is Obama himself. Arriving in Washington genuinely committed to changing the culture, he almost immediately surrendered to it. Obstinate Republicans, change-adverse Democrats, cynical journalists, polarized voters, racist voters, and ignorant voters soon became more than obstacles to Obama’s agenda, they became excuses.

When they’re being honest, Democratic leaders will tell you they’ve been disappointed in Obama’s lack of leadership. Hillary Clinton, for one, says she could do better than Obama at bringing constructive bipartisanship to Washington.

“Because I have much more experience doing it,” she told The Des Moines Register on Monday.

Obama acknowledged the fears and frustrations that have fueled separate strains of populism—Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left—while reminding voters that America has survived past bouts of economic, social, political, and demographic change.

He said democracy “grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. 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 narrow interest.”

He continued: “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. There’s 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.”

Obama has long measured his legacy against the greats–writing speeches aimed for carved granite, and unspooling policies geared toward transformative change.

He failed. They failed. We failed. Because, as Obama reminded us, no leader can force change without an engaged and willing public. Looking beyond his presidency, still hoping for change, Obama said, “It will depend on you.”

His enemies say he fundamentally transformed the country in a bad way. His allies say he was transformative in the best sense of the word. The fact is, barring unforeseen events in his eighth year, Obama will be remembered as a good man—and maybe a good president—who nonetheless failed to be great.