President Obama’s last State of the Union address deviated from the norm in significant ways: rather than expound on specific legislative proposals for the short term and appeal to Congress, he broadened his scope to the long term, delineating a vision of hope and optimism for the American future. It was remarkably evocative of his early days of campaigning, and why America voted for him in the first place, as the speech rang with passion, confidence, and idealism.
His rhetoric clearly resonated with people—many individuals saw it as a landmark speech of his presidency, one that would be remembered in history.
Republicans, however, saw things a bit differently.
Unlike President Obama, who refused to be myopic in his last major address to this country, many GOP candidates pettily narrowed in on the aspects they found lacking in his relatively short speech.
Of all the criticism, Donald Trump’s was the most feckless. He tweeted that, “The #SOTU speech is really boring, slow, lethargic - very hard to watch!” Calling something boring is essentially his go-to response when he can find nothing more substantial to critique.
Others, such as Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, pounced on his failure to mention the unfolding situation with the American sailors captured in Iran, despite the fact that it only occurred hours earlier. Cruz linked the capture to the “incredible weakness” of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy, and slammed Obama for not “[speaking] the name of our enemy…radical Islamic terrorism.”
Obama did, indeed, give mention to our enemy, but he notably did not associate it with Islam—he specifically declared that, “We just need to call them what they are: killers and fanatics.”
Cruz’s criticism completely belies one of the main points that Obama made about refusing to buy into the Islamophobia politicians sell. As Obama put it, “When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad, or fellow citizens…That’s not telling it like it is, it’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It betrays who we are as a country.”
Mike Huckabee unfoundedly claimed that the President “[refused] to accept an ounce of responsibility" for his failures. If he truly believes this, then he definitely missed the speech—Obama quite clearly noted his disappointment in the ways the political discourse has evolved during the last seven years, and the sad truth that distrust and partisanship has only increased: “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
Yet the key failure in Republican critique was an inability to see the broader picture. President Obama’s speech was less about his personal legacy or his own policies (though he certainly mentioned them), and more about understanding how we can shape an America that has a better, brighter, more optimistic future, both as Republicans and Democrats. It was not a "state of denial"; it was a defense of democracy, of the American people, of our unique strengths as a country. Unfortunately, all the GOP could see was petty politics.
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