President Obama delivers his final State of the Union address. (Evan Vucci/Bloomberg)

We have long known that Barack Obama gives a good speech. But he is at his oratorical best when he rhetorically holds the mirror up to us and reflects on the goodness of this nation. He did this as an Illinois state senator in a 16-minute speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that made him an instant national political star. And he did it Tuesday night in his final State of the Union address as president of the United States.

Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that, a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white, or Asian or Latino; not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not Democrat or Republican; but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love. . . .

That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.  

President Obama on Tuesday

 

Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.

There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

Illinois State Senator Obama in 2004

Twelve years ago in Boston, Obama reminded us of who we are. You didn’t realize how necessary and soothing that was to hear until the words flowed forth. The contested presidential election of 2000 exacerbated partisan tensions at home. The terrorist attacks of 2001 and the toll of the subsequent wars shook our sense of security and invincibility in the world. What Obama said that night lifted our spirits, swelled our hearts and renewed our national pride.

Today, we’re at a crossroads again. The 2016 presidential campaign is already notable for the xenophobia, racism and misogyny of Republican front-runner Donald Trump. That folks still feel uncertain about their economic well-being and their personal security in the age of the Islamic State is understandable. But to stoke the fear and hatred roiling just beneath the surface is antithetical to who we are as a nation.

“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” said Obama. “That’s not telling it like it is.  It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals.  It betrays who we are as a country.”


President Reagan shortly after delivering his farewell address from Oval Office in 1989.

The GOP candidates for president drop the name of Ronald Reagan like so much confetti. But none of them emulates the sunny optimism of the Republican 40th president. Instead, they bombard us with gloom, doom and defeatism mixed with bigotry and invective, then gussy it up with cute slogans.

“Make America great again” is Trump’s mantra. As if the United States isn’t the leader of the free world. As if the U.S. economy isn’t the envy of the world. As if this nation, with all its faults and foibles, isn’t still that beacon of hope, that “shining city upon a hill” Reagan talked about in his farewell address in 1989. As if the American people are not the embodiment of its sustained greatness. Of course, it is — of course, we are — which made Obama and his final State of the Union speech more like Reagan than the Republican front-runner hoping to succeed him.

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