By Fleming Smith
On January 12, President Barack Obama gave his seventh and final State of the Union address. Perhaps you were one of the 31.7 million Americans who watched, but if you didn’t, you may be asking: What is the state of the union, anyway? The answer isn’t easy, but in many ways, it can be simplified into the fact that America is divided. And honestly, that isn’t too much different from how the state of the union has ever been.
If you want to know how America is divided, just watch a single minute of Obama’s address. The president will make a point, perhaps about wealth inequality, and the Democrats will applaud while the Republicans fidget in their seats. Just look at the facial expressions of Vice-President Joe Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan, sitting directly behind the president. In most State of the Union addresses, a president will use the time to introduce new proposals for legislation in an attempt to curry favor with both parties. This year, however, Obama decided to forego the proposals, albeit small mentions of gun control reform and new medical research. Instead, he wanted to focus on the future— and so began a long speech about the greatness of America, full of hope for how we can all do better.
Now, doing better is important, don’t get me wrong. But will we? Not only is the American public itself divided along lines of party, religion, race, class, and sexuality, among numerous other divisions, but our legislature is also deeply estranged. Obama admitted during his address that during his presidency “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.” Can we say this will improve with the next president? Take a look at the frontrunners: Clinton and Trump are hated by the opposite party not only as politicians but as people, Sanders is so far left that he may not be able to find any common ground with Republicans, and Cruz is far right, like many of the Republican nominees. Obama’s address subtly ridiculed the level of discourse in Republican debates, but could he say that the discourse in Congress has fared any bettter?
Words of hope and optimism are attractive, but without substance, they’re largely useless. Sewanee students may appreciate Obama’s points that “we have to make college affordable for every American” and “cut the cost of college,” but a worrying sign is the line Obama keeps repeating after all of these lofty goals: “It’s the right thing to do.” Whether it’s right or not, he makes little positive assurances that these are commitments beyond mere promises. With election season in full swing, Obama is losing the power to effect real change, and most candidates lean towards dismantling his legislation altogether.
Ideas of right and wrong have taken on almost frightening connotations in the exchanges between different parties, with each side calling the other hostile to the “real” American public. In today’s Congress, members of the other party are not just political opponents — they’re enemies to be fought and destroyed if necessary. To be fair, political tensions have always run hot — even the founding fathers could become pretty vicious, and Alexander Hamilton’s opponent shot and killed him in a duel. However, that happened over two hundred years ago, and one would hope that our country had moved beyond such things.
For all of Obama’s pretty rhetoric, his 2016 State of the Union address didn’t change any hearts or minds. It didn’t change anything, really. The State of the Union address is mandated by the Constitution for the president to give Congress “information…and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall find necessary and expedient.” Unfortunately, the word “recommend” is now taken far too literally. Obama may be speaking, but for all his accomplishments and failures, no one with the power to effect change is listening.