The hype around a two-term American president’s final State of the Union (Sotu) address is built around the imperative of shoring up his legacy. Decorated with high rhetoric, it dangles a shopping list but no shopping bag. Nobody expected President Barack Obama, with less than a year to go before his successor is elected, to hit the high notes of his earlier Sotus. It was always going to be difficult to defend his legacy with his back to the wall. Obama told the two Houses of Congress that there’s still ground beneath their feet, that the sky won’t fall. A lot of things are better since he took charge, and there’s no reason to be pessimistic about the economy and the future of America. But the Union isn’t healthy, and Democrats and Republicans, Obama regretted, hate each other more today, a divide reflected in the climate of entrenched polarisation.
Obama’s last Sotu was an electoral pitch simply because the president is aware of the precariousness of his legacy in healthcare, climate change, alternative energy and same-sex marriage in the hands of a Republican successor. To that effect, Obama’s attack was especially sharp on GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, albeit without naming him. But the president didn’t address concerns about his foreign and security policy. In particular, his insistence that the Islamic State (IS) militants “do not threaten our national existence” cut little ice. While his attempts to end America’s wars abroad has seen strong domestic support, the Syrian conflict and the rise of the IS are widely seen as question marks against an over-cautious policy.
Obama’s shopping list is ambitious: Closing Guantanamo, criminal justice reform, lifting the embargo on Cuba, and even belated military action against the IS. He has neither the time nor the Congressional votes to get much of this done. Yet, the last word on a president’s achievements is pronounced years later, not necessarily by the next president.