Obama Comes Full Circle

Pool / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The man who loomed largest in Obama’s final State of the Union address (and in South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s response) wasn’t in attendance, and was never mentioned by name. But as Obama decried “voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” there was little doubt about his target.

The speech bookended a political arc that began at the 2004 Democratic convention, and it sounded similar themes. And as I liveblogged it with my colleagues, I was struck by Obama’s effort to recapture the theme of civic unity with which he began his career—and, not without irony, the sharp jabs he threw at the Republican contenders he believes are undermining it.

David Graham captured that dynamic in his analysis of the speech:

President Obama and his aides promised that this year’s State of the Union address would be different, and he delivered on that promise. It was a somewhat unusual speech: Surprisingly devoted to rebutting Republican candidates for president, unusually loose and humorous, and elsewhere strikingly cerebral, passing up the tear-jerking climaxes of past addresses for a wonky and cerebral—though no less heartfelt—plea for civics and a better politics.

Read the rest of his analysis, and of our liveblog, here.