President Barack Obama will step into the House chamber on Tuesday evening with bittersweet emotions about his last State of the Union address, admitting regret that he failed to be the unifying force he promised in 2008 while professing immense pride for what his White House has accomplished.
The White House has pushed an intense social media campaign around tonight’s address, which is not expected to be the traditional laundry list of policy initiatives. Instead, Obama will tap into his oratorical skills to deliver his own vision of what makes America already great, and in what direction it needs to head.
Traversing the White House grounds in the taped interview, Obama acknowledged his presidential pitch of “hope” and unification had collided with the realities of Washington.
“It’s a regret,” Obama said before adding, “I could not be prouder of what we’ve accomplished…And sometimes we look at the past through rose-colored glasses. It’s been pretty divided in the past. There have been times where, you know, people beat each other with canes and we had things like the Civil War.”
Politics in the nation’s capital, he hastened to add, “Are so much more divided than the American people are.”
“And part of what I want to do in this last address is to remind people, you know what, we’ve got a lot of good things going for us and if we can get our politics right, it turns out that we’re not as divided on the ideological spectrum as people make us out to be,” the president continued.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said. “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
He offered a prescription, saying it’s about the process, not the people who are elected. Obama pitched the removal of legislatures from redistricting; a reduction of the influence of money in politics; and laws that make it easier to vote.
He also admitted that accomplishing those reforms is harder than the idealism that put him on the national political map might suggest.
“What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter,” Obama said.
He added: “As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into 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, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”
And if there was any remaining doubt he was talking about Donald Trump, Obama got even more specific. “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” Obama said in a not-very-veiled reference to Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.