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.
He mentioned all those topics this year. As the economic crisis has receded, it has created a space that cultural anxieties now fill. Conservatives now focus on immigration in a way they haven’t since Pete Wilson and Pat Buchanan ran for president in 1996. Democrats stress gun control to a degree they haven’t since the early Clinton years. Terrorism has returned to center stage not merely because of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, but because fear of economic calamity no longer looms so large.
The second thing that stands out when you compare Obama’s first and last State of the Union speeches is the scaling back of America’s ambition in the greater Middle East. In his 2009 speech, Obama promised “a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” to be shepherded by a high-profile envoy, Richard Holbrooke. He also promised “to seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors,” and appointed a second high-profile diplomat, George Mitchell, to pursue that.
Today, the nation-building project that Holbrooke tried to launch in “Afpak” and the diplomatic effort that Mitchell tried to launch between Israelis and Palestinians are distant memories. In this year’s State of the Union, Obama mentioned neither the Israeli-Palestinian peace process nor the Afghan War. Both were ambitious, American-dominated, efforts to remake a far-off corner of the greater Middle East. This year, Obama signaled that such initiatives were a thing of the past. His speech was hardly isolationist. He mentioned Cuba and Ebola and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But the clear implication was that in the Middle East and South Asia, America has lowered its sights.
These two shifts are interconnected. Obama took over a nation he considered overstretched. America’s economy, he believed, was too weak to sustain the overseas commitments George W. Bush had assumed. Seven years later, Obama has reduced those commitments, though not as much as he might have liked because of ISIS. And America’s economy is stronger. The country, in Obama’s view, has regained its balance. Unfortunately for him, large chunks of the American public have not.
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