Seven straight years of frothing-at-the-mouth Republicans. Haters pushing derail buttons on your presidency. The irritating reality that a good quarter of the population still believes you weren’t born here.
Now, in the wake of all that, you must give your last official speech before a shark-infested Congress openly hoping for your demise. What would you do?
You’d throw a left hook so hard that it slammed “Bamas” into the next sequel of Creed.
But you won’t get that from chronically cool President Barack Obama as he delivers his final State of the Union address.
In the anxious runup, his detractors seek more reasons to demonize him, as hang-in-there supporters fantasize epic, hood-style shutdowns.
Will there be any unprepared or beautifully timed snaps (“I won both of them”)? Will he throw some well-placed policy punches (“Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan”) and poke a hole in the right? Depends on how much his heart is in it. It will be bittersweet and poignant, a portrait of a president both scorned and defiant, embattled but steady and deliberate.
Sifting through the cesspool and zoo of Washington, D.C., we should find a troubled artist searching for his last good Capitol Hill poem.
“Obama could advance the long-standing debate about what government should and should not do,” says McGill University history professor Gil Troy. “Obama’s stealth liberalism fails to fool Republicans. The shift from ‘Yes we can’ poet to technocratic cataloger bores Democrats.”
There is no real agenda anymore because the clock runs faster when it’s an election year. But Obama cares too much to get too tired; he so wants to throw up his hands and draw some satisfaction from that, but, of course, knows he can’t. So watch for the following five things:
“I’m out.” He’s still got a full year before his tear-jerking farewell. But this president no longer harbors hopeful illusions about Washington and a Congress with which he endlessly battled on pretty much every policy initiative he created. There will be flashes of rhetorical door slams behind him on the way out. He’ll talk over Congress to a divided public in passionate pleas for national unity and calm, painting acrimonious lawmakers as pestilent, national troublemakers who held him back. Something will feel like: “Look what we could’ve been, America.”
With the president no longer giving any real f—ks about who is in the Congress or what it stands for, there will be an unmistakable tone of borrowed Chicago gravel as he happily strolls from the House speaker’s dais one last time.
“Look what I did.” No president in his final term can resist the temptation to tick off greatest hits in a moment like this. His speech will be no different, a combined legacy definer and a thrown assist to Democrats in urgent need of motivation. Expect bold reminders and tales of once-impossible policy conundrums like health care reform that became legislative achievements. Behold harried odysseys of navigating the nation through stormy economic waters.
He’ll make it clear, as plainly and as concisely as he can, against the backdrop of a hostile legislative branch. This will be the first pitch and launch of that narrative, a story shared by administration officials who will retell it during their post-SOTU “Cabinet in Your Community” road tour. Nervous Democrats will want it for a larger election-year manifesto to vividly showcase their style of governance as the best. The question is whether voters, split and haggard, will actually buy into it.
Survey says: gun control. After so many mass-shooting headlines, and no available path toward a solution in Congress, the president will press hard on gun control. It will be somber-filled and gut-wrenching. The visual of an empty chair to represent victims might bring us another moment of a visibly moved president struggling through tears to the next word. He will make every attempt—and panning television cameras in the room will offer every opportunity—to embarrass gun-lobby-owned Republicans, who will try with every fiber of their collective red beings not to blink or squirm on the stroll through guilt-trip park. But with gun control advocates unable to match the funding and ferocity of the gun-rights lobby to date, questions still remain as to who, exactly, this issue will mobilize. In this speech, President Obama will hope it’s Democrats.
Step aside, Black Lives Matter; meet gun control and the Islamic State. You might need a hearing aid or closed captions to catch any specific reference to black people who have died from police violence or the most-in-recent-memory racial tension gripping the nation right about now. Families of the fallen will be noticeably absent from the first lady’s box. Of course, that’s where gun control comes in handy: a good deflect issue from a much more controversial Black Lives Matter movement (which finds itself politically stuck). Plus, a surging Islamic State group and the post-San Bernardino, Calif., landscape just rudely pivoted this election back to the fear of radical jihadis as issue No. 1.
The president might strike a few lofty lines about race and offer an eloquent verse here or there about bridging gaps—the type of stuff to let many whites relive the goosebumpy vibe from 2008. But on that issue, it will probably fall flat for “missing” black millennials looking for crackle and pop … and a reason to lift their finger for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
A vision, not a mission. The president will offer his vision of what he wishes America would be rather than what it’s ended up as: an uncertain, politically moronic apple cart of severe partisan divides and shaky government in Washington. Here, he’ll lay out his vision: attempting to look authentically tough on terrorism, his eyes betraying any optimism he displays on climate change, while he bids immigration reform its last goodbye and tries to keep the high note on an economy that’s more slugging it out than recovering. He’ll only hope that the next president (a Democrat, if he pleases) will have it just a little easier.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.