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For the eighth and last time of his presidency, Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union speech before a very tough room.
How tough? Consider this: When he championed an intensified effort to find a cure for cancer, not everyone stood up to applaud.
That’s right, folks. In this chamber, you can’t even get a full standing ovation for curing cancer.
Speaking of standing, it was interesting to see Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, famous for his rigorous exercise routine, becoming a virtual couch potato during the speech. On the other hand, the considerably older Vice President Joe Biden, sitting beside him, leapt to his feet so often that he seemed to resemble a political Jack LaLanne.
The event began with the preliminary meet-and-greet during Obama’s entrance that belied the inevitable division to follow. The “Kumbaya” segment once again featured that wacky, obscure New York congressman who camps out for hours every year just to secure a prime seat. Someone needs to tell him that this is the State of the Union speech, not a Star Wars movie premiere.
Like any good speaker, Obama warmed up the crowd with some humor and a very welcome promise.
“For this final one, I’m gonna try and make it a little short,” he said. “I know that some of you are anxious to get back to Iowa,” he added to laughs before offering to provide campaigners with some personal tips after the speech.
Having come to the belated recognition that his promise, when he was first elected, to unite the nation didn’t turn out so well, Obama made the event a combination of a victory lap, stern lecture and Democratic campaign speech. Tellingly, tonight’s gathering was held earlier in the year than usual, so as not to compete with the main event: the race to succeed him.
But Obama wasn’t out yet, and he made the most of the spotlight, posing and then answering a series of questions as if conducting a Passover Seder.
“How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us and not our worst?” he asked early on. You practically could hear Donald Trump guffawing.
After announcing that the speech would be not so much about the coming year but “the next five years, the next 10 years and beyond,” Obama proudly touted his administration’s achievements, including the economic recovery, job growth and, yes, the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m guessing we won’t agree on health care anytime soon,” he took pains to add.
The fiery speech contained plenty of terrific one-liners that jazzed up the crowd — well, half of it, at least.
“Food-stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis,” he boomed. No doubt referring to climate-change scoffers, he pointed out that when the Russians were beating us in the space race decades ago, “we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.” Referring to the current hyperbolic discourse regarding national security, Obama pointed out, “We’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.”
(Cut to a close-up of the glowering joint chiefs of staff, who looked like they were ready to go to war before the evening was over.)
The last segment featured Obama at his most eloquent and forceful. He established his tough-guy credentials by describing ISIL and its ilk not as an existential threat, but rather “killers and fanatics.”
“If you doubt our commitment,” he added, his chest seeming to swell before our eyes, “just ask Bin Laden.”
“When you come after Americans, we go after you,” he threatened.
But he also advised the nation essentially to take a chill pill. Citing such international, if hardly uncontroversial, accomplishments as the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the response to the Ebola crisis and the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama made his strongest case for not launching an all-out war: “It’s the lesson of Vietnam. It’s the lesson of Iraq. And we should have learned it by now.”
He also took plenty of potshots at the Republican candidates and their jingoistic positions without mentioning (cough, Donald Trump; cough, Ted Cruz) any of them by name.
“There have been those who told us to fear the future, who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control,” said Obama. “Each time, we overcame those fears.”
He continued: “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized or a kid bullied,” said Obama, “it diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
As usual, one of the broadcast’s most entertaining elements was its frequent cutaways to audience members, including members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and even Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who briefly went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She didn’t look pleased to be there.
Oh, to be able to lip-read, as the whispered comments among the crowd that one could see but not hear probably would have proven even more entertaining than the president’s speech. One proposal for next year: Mike everyone in the room, and let the fun begin.
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