Obama makes the case for his legacy
- 13 January 2016
- From the section US & Canada
Forget the fanfare, forget the ritual and forget the policy announcements, because let's face it - this was not an eat-all-you-can legislative meal.
How could it be?
The president has less than a year to go, so a protein-rich legislative programme would be a waste of time because there aren't the hours and there aren't the votes.
Instead this occasion was about symbols and messages. Variously attributed to Walter Benjamin, George Orwell and Winston Churchill it is said that "history is written by the victors". And like all good politicians Barack Obama in his final State of the Union address was trying to give his narrative on his term of office.
Without the verbal dexterity or phrase-making elan that have been his oratorical hallmark - I could sum it up crudely as: "It was a pile of steaming ordure when I got here, but it's really pretty good now."
And so the tone was optimistic: "The future we want - opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids - all that is within our reach."
But that message also served another political purpose. With the election coming up in November the none too subtle sub-text of that is: All this is within your reach providing you don't change course. In other words, don't embrace a Republican candidate.
And of what he found when he got to the White House, he spoke of the American spirit to innovate and discover.
"It's that spirit that made the progress of these past seven years possible. It's how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector; how we delivered more care for our troops and veterans and how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love."
I told you he would do it more eloquently.
But if part of his legacy depends on seeing a Democrat returned to the White House, there was one Republican the president didn't want to see embraced.
That was the billionaire businessman Donald Trump. Although he did not mention Mr Trump by name it was clear who his target was.
"When politicians insult Muslims ... that doesn't make us safer. 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. And it betrays who we are as a country."
Indeed calling for a different kind of political dialogue was one of the central themes of this speech.
One of the great frustrations of his presidency has been the toxic relations between Capitol Hill and the White House.
And so he called for a more tolerant, open and respectful political discourse.
"Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and imperatives of security.
But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens."
That goal will probably have to be filed in the "mission not accomplished" intray. But he said he would keep on trying.
On policy there is a determination to get to mission accomplished on a whole pile of things from reform of the criminal justice system to prescription drug abuse; from getting more students to write computer code to concluding the normalisation of relations with Cuba; from the Pacific trade deal to immigration reform.
And of course, closest to his heart - making progress on tackling the scourge of gun violence. One seat in the First Lady's box was symbolically kept empty to remember those who've been killed and whose voice is no longer heard.
But this was not a State of the Union that will be remembered for the shopping list.
This is about a vision for America for the next four or five years, when President Obama will be long gone and pruning the roses and digging up the weeds in his back yard (why do I struggle with that as a credible image?). It was optimistic, upbeat, hopeful.
Winning everyone in Congress with this address was never going to be possible.
No the target is the American people. As he enters the final lap of his presidency latest polls suggest that around two thirds of the American people think America is going in the wrong direction; only 27% think the country is doing well.
Switch those numbers around and the Obama legacy is secure; if those numbers don't budge then history might not be written by the president, but by the verdict of "we the people".