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On Tuesday night, outgoing President Barack Obama turned and looked out at the rotunda of the United States House Chamber one last time. After two terms in office, this was the president’s final State of the Union address — one that resonated well with just about everyone who wasn’t a hardline Republican. In past years, Obama has tended to outline future policies, describing initiatives in detail to help the U.S. get back on track. This year, however, he took the opportunity to touch on two major themes: the increasingly hostile bipartisanship in government and the resurgence of the country’s economy.
The former harkens back to a speech that arguably set Obama on the track that he rode to the White House. In 2004, the fresh-faced senator from Illinois stood at the Democratic National Convention and stated, “There is not a liberal America, or a conservative America; there is the United States of America.”
Over a decade later, the now-gray-haired President Obama made one final call for educated, level-headed political discourse while lamenting that the “rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.” After the State of the Union concluded, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave the GOP response, which echoed Obama’s sentiment and called for both parties to come together as opposed to perpetually warring with each other.
The speech wasn’t simply a call for discussion. Most hot-button issues, save for one, made it squarely into the State of the Union. The one that barely made the cut? Gun control.
In fact, the word “gun” was only mentioned once, very early on in the speech and part of a blanket statement of things that the United States should pay more attention to in the future.
Obama also talked about other divisive topics, such as foreign policy, health care and affordable education, at length. Climate change and alternative energy came up as the president made a call for more investment in clean energy, such as wind and solar power. For years, this has been a huge point of contention between Democrats and Republicans. But Obama shrewdly toed the line, bringing up the concept of homeowners storing their own energy, and further mentioning that even Tea Partiers were in support of such a measure.
His statements on foreign policy in particular produced many notable soundbites. During his two terms, the Obama administration has been rather uneven in its handling of the Middle East and other conflicts around the globe. While there was mention of the treatment of the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak (which was a foreign policy victory for the president), Obama brought up the conflict in Syria as an example of a “smarter approach. A patient, disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power.”
This was a potentially suspect point, as Syria’s predicament could be considered one of the biggest foreign policy failures that the Obama administration has had in the last eight years. Militarily, the president seemed a bit vague, stating, “When you come after Americans, we go after you. It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit.”
Later on in the speech, Obama urged caution, contending that “the world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians.”
Perhaps the biggest announcement of all though, was the unveiling of a new national effort to cure cancer. In an emotional moment, Obama turned to his vice president, Joe Biden, who recently lost his son to cancer, and put him in charge of “mission control.” No doubt this will become a bigger initiative in the future, but with less than a year left in his presidency, it seems that Obama went for broke.
Overall, the speech was vintage Barack Obama: intelligent, well-spoken and, for the most part, balanced. He took some shots at more hard-line GOPers, especially front-runner Donald Trump, but the message of the speech is one that should resonate with all Americans.
After years of watching political discourse devolve into mudslinging, the president stepped out and urged the people of the United States to be willing to listen, to be open to new views and to be respectful in disagreement when there’s a point of contention. The president pointed out that that’s what this country was built to uphold, and he implored all Americans to make sure it always will.