Many Barack Obama supporters, knowing that Tuesday night was the very last State of the Union by the president, got some funny ideas in their heads.
Having vicariously experienced all of the stress, racism and abuse the president has suffered over the last eight years, many were waiting for him to just get brolic onstage—to call out everybody who’s ever given him a hard time in Washington and top it off by walking with Michelle out of the Senate like Django and Broomhilda. I’m not privy to the president’s inner thoughts, but that kind of rage, scorn and invective has never been his political style.
Instead he has been more inclined to lecture or simply to try, ever so desperately, to persuade the nation away from paths that he feels will ultimately lead to our ruin. And that is essentially what President Obama did in his final State of the Union address. He gave an exit interview: He told the nation how much he loved the job, and he pleaded with his successor not to make mistakes that will cost us all.
It’s rare to actually have an exit interview with a job, because when most people leave their job, it’s often a less-than-pleasant parting of the ways. However, when it works well, in an exit interview your soon-to-be-former employer sits down with you; asks you about your experience on the job and why you’re leaving; and then, most important, asks you to provide suggestions for your successor and even your former supervisors on how to make the workplace better.
That is essentially what Obama did on Tuesday. He didn’t lay out his huge policy goals; nor did he really state what his plans are for the next year. Instead, the president, in a very personal way, talked about how much he loved his job.
Given the amount of time that Obama has spent in recent months talking about gun violence and domestic and foreign terrorism—not to mention the economy—many analysts believed that his final State of the Union would tee up the 2016 race for the Democrats. Not so. Now, Obama certainly spent an adequate amount of time touting his accomplishments. And he certainly stunted on the GOP, suggesting sarcastically that he could give their candidates some advice on how to win in Iowa, and how paying less than $2 a gallon for gas is pretty good. However, almost three-quarters of the speech was just Obama talking about politics, and how politics in America needs to change if this country is to survive.
But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.
This section alone will inspire a million think pieces on it as a slam on Donald Trump, or Republicans, but honestly, that’s really a shortsighted view of Obama’s words. This is a president who has spent his life in public office realizing that the most powerful position in the nation is the most dependent on cooperation and collective action. Rather than slamming Republicans for obstructionism over specific policies, the president really seemed to be saying that the entire democracy was at risk when leaders choose to argue rather than lead. And lest that be seen as a subtweet of the GOP only, just a few paragraphs later he made an even more general statement about the state of American democracy:
I think we've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections. And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution.
Obama is calling out not only the Bushes and the Kochs but also the Clintons, as families of power and influence that are ruining American politics. But whereas last year the president essentially stared down the Supreme Court over the “dark money” unleashed into politics since its Citizens United ruling, pleading with Congress to pass a law, this exit interview was different. Obama didn’t talk to his “co-workers” but instead went straight to his “bosses,” the American people. The president put it squarely in their lap: that making the kinds of changes that will be necessary to save our country from long-term dysfunction and ruin will require protests, actions and, most of all, voting.
Obama loves his country and is very sad to be leaving his job, but he also sees on the horizon that the whole American political enterprise is in trouble. Without a bit of anger or condescension, he was warning us all what the brand of politics that became mainstream during his term will eventually do to this country. He was warning us that the way many Republicans are running won’t work if they end up having to govern.
And that eventually this will happen:
And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want. It will not produce the security we want. But most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.
Hopefully the nation was listening. It might not have been the most riveting speech, or filled with hot fire, but it did burn with the passion of a man leaving a job he loves. Let’s just hope that as a nation, we all learned a bit from his exit interview. We’ll soon become bosses of a brand-new president, and it never hurts to get advice from the last guy we hired.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.