In his final address to Congress, a grayer President Obama, tested by crisis and hardened by daily battle with political enemies, urged Americans to look to a future filled with promise and challenge.
Obama has been a transformational figure in his eight years — whether for good or otherwise depends largely on which party you identify with. What is undeniable is that he has led the country at a time of tremendous, often unsettling change that has left some uncertain about America’s place in the world.
On Tuesday, Obama addressed those fears head on, noting that the U.S. has the strongest, most durable economy in the world and that it is in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. He took a well-deserved victory lap for some of his accomplishments, including steering the nation out of a recession that was veering perilously close to a depression. His gambles to save the auto industry paid off, and extended unemployment benefits gave a lifeline to millions. Minnesota, along with other states, reaped the benefits of “shovel-ready” projects that, while criticized by some, spurred the economy, put people to work and made badly needed infrastructure improvements. The Affordable Care Act, for all its flaws, put health care coverage within the reach of many who lacked it, increasing Minnesota’s insurance coverage rate to 95 percent.
But much more needs to be done, as Obama acknowledged. The economic recovery has left too many behind. Stagnating or falling wages gnaw at the middle and working classes. Too much wealth has concentrated at the very top. College is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Gun violence takes too many lives — and Obama honored those with a starkly empty chair near First Lady Michelle Obama. The cauldron of rage and conflict that has divided the Middle East for millennia continues to boil over, sending out waves of refugees whom the West is unprepared and, increasingly, unwilling to deal with. Many are dissatisfied with this president’s approach to terrorism and the threat represented by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and other such groups.
We need new, big goals to strive for, new “moonshots” — and Obama laid out an admirable one. Building off an earlier proposal by Vice President Joe Biden, Obama urged that America be the nation that finally beats the scourge of cancer and said Biden will lead those efforts.
What critics should bear in mind is that the Congress — Republican and Democratic leaders alike — share in the successes and the failures of the last eight years and will do the same going forward. And those who say America has entered a dark era of faltering fortunes go too far. Fiery rhetoric that fans fear and encourages scapegoating of certain populations betrays the nation’s values and is the wrong path.
The advice Obama offered Tuesday should hold no matter who we elect this November.
“The future we want — opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living … is within our reach,” he said, “but it will only happen if we work together … if we fix our politics. … We have to change the system to reflect our better selves.”
That doesn’t mean an end to disagreements. This is a loud, noisy nation that takes its politics seriously. But the zeal to win cannot blind us to good ideas on the other side, nor harden us against working together toward the common goal of this nation as a powerful, just force for good here and in the world.
That will be the biggest challenge of Election 2016.