To put President Obama’s last State of the Union speech in context, I reread his first. Placing them side-by-side illustrates not just the way Obama’s agenda has changed during his terms in office, but the way America’s entire political debate has changed.
The first thing that stands out is how the decline of economic terror has created space for other terrors. In 2009, Obama pleaded with Americans not to trigger a run on the banks: “You should also know,” he insisted, “that the money you’ve deposited in banks across the country is safe.” He talked about Americans being economically ruined: “The job you thought you’d retire from but now have lost; the business you built your dreams upon that’s now hanging by a thread; the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope.”
By comparison, America’s current economic conditions are placid. In 2009, unemployment was the preeminent issue in American politics. Today, it’s one among many. In his 2009 State of the Union, Obama mentioned the word “deficit” 17 times. This year, he mentioned it once. Even the Republicans running to succeed him don’t bring it up that much.
Because of the magnitude of the fiscal crisis, economic debates—over bank bailouts, the economic stimulus, and Obamacare—dominated American politics during Obama’s first few years. The Tea Party focused overwhelmingly on the size of government. By contrast, the culture wars seemed like an afterthought. Obama didn’t mention gun violence in his first State of the Union. He didn’t mention police brutality. He didn’t mention immigration. He didn’t mention American Muslims.