In his final State of the Union address, President Obama declared, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.” He promised to continue trying to bring people together, and issued a mea culpa for partisan divisiveness. “There’s no doubt a President with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”
But Lincoln and Roosevelt are peculiar examples of partisan peace. One presided over a bloody civil war. The other declared himself the enemy of big business, big finance, and what he called “the forces of organized money.”
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” Roosevelt said in a speech just before the 1936 presidential election. “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
Obama, on the other hand, has been striving to overcome the hatred of Republicans and their allies since his first day in office—even as then-minority leader Mitch McConnell declared that Republicans’ top priority would be to deny him a second term.
Obama also kept the door open to organized money, raking in contributions from Wall Street and bringing bank-friendly regulators into his administration, including Treasury Secretaries Timothy Geithner and Jacob Lew.
“Food stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis,” Obama declared in one of the best lines in his State of the Union address. “Recklessness on Wall Street did."
“Food stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis.”
But that recklessness continues, and Wall Street continues to be comfortable enough with Obama and other mainstream Democrats to keep the campaign cash flowing.
As the first African American President, Obama has been a lightening rod for a deep racism and ugliness in our culture. For that, he cannot possibly take the blame.
In his address, Obama denounced some of the worst demagoguery and intolerance emanating from the scary right. But he did not mention police violence or Black Lives Matter, except obliquely, when he praised “the protester determined to prove that justice matters” and, in the same breath, “the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.”
As House Speaker Paul Ryan sat stone-faced behind him, refusing to clap even for the President’s proposal to find a cure for cancer, Obama continued to reach out. He highlighted Ryan’s interest in fighting poverty and suggesting there might be room for work on that issue across party lines.
At least one progressive legislator was taken aback by that overture.
“I was surprised he would mention Speaker Ryan in the context of poverty,” said Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of California and a member of the Progressive Caucus.
Ryan is the author of budget proposals deemed so punitive for their cuts to food stamps, unemployment insurance, and other programs that benefit the most vulnerable in society, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops felt compelled to write a series of letters declaring that Ryan’s vision is at odds with Catholic doctrine on helping the poor.
Nonetheless, Representative Lee, who brought Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza with her to the State of the Union address as her special guest, took a glass-half-full view of the President’s speech. She was glad Obama mentioned protesters for justice, she said.
Representative Lee is the leading opponent of militarism in Congress, and cast the lone vote in the House of Representatives against the “blank check” authorization of military force against America’s enemies after 9/11. She welcomed Obama’s call for Congress to authorize military action against ISIS.
“We’ve been in this latest war for over a year,” she said. “Members of Congress need to do their jobs,” by voting on the use of military force. “I was pleased and happy the President called for it.”
“We should repeal the 2001 resolution,” Representative Lee added. “But at least he brought up a new authorization.”
Obama is no pacifist. In his speech, he cited the enormous U.S. military budget—not to call for cuts but as proof that the United States is “the most powerful nation on Earth,” a bigger spender on weapons than the eight next largest military powers, and therefore safe.
Striking a wistful note toward the end of his speech, Obama suggested that even his fellow politicians in Washington “don’t enjoy” the toxic atmosphere of partisan rancor, nor do they like spending all their time raising money.
He made a pitch for fixing the nation’s campaign finance system. He called out the current crop of Republican presidential candidates for stirring up hatred against Muslims at home (Donald Trump) and threatening to carpet-bomb civilians in other countries (Ted Cruz). He called for action on climate change and mocked climate deniers.
In the end, Obama would probably have done better to forget his one regret. His overtures to the other side have done nothing to cool partisan rancor or the rise of authoritarian populism.
Instead of seeking compromise, he might have done more to win over alienated voters and unite the country by emulating FDR and embracing the fight.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.