“I stand here as confident as I’ve ever been,” President Obama declared at the conclusion of his final State of the Union address. And then he paused, savoring the moment. Every viewer knew that there was more coming (it turned out to be, rather predictably, that the state of our Union is “strong”), but after listening to the president for an hour, those nine words could have been the subtext of the entire speech. This was a remarkably confident president, almost jaunty in his bearing, and exuding a good nature that seemed to be the result of sheer self-satisfaction. It may not signal anything about the eighth year of his presidency, but it certainly shows that he feels confident about the achievements of the first seven.
It all started with a joke. “I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa,” President Obama kidded. And then he departed from his prepared remarks. “I’ve been there,” Obama ad-libbed. “I’ll be shaking hands afterwards if you want some tips.” For a president so often accused by his conservative critics of being solipsistic, it was a bold opening; it also set the stage for the cocky tone he held throughout the night. The president’s approval ratings may be on the wrong side of 50 percent, and he doesn’t seem to care.
Obama ticked through a number of economic indicators with the air of a man who was not only fed up with Donald Trump’s nonsense, but also disinclined to hear more about falling American standards of living and a hollowed-out manufacturing sector—the very rhetoric that has been the lifeblood of Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly hearty campaign. The foreign policy section of the speech displayed a president with even more swagger. After a brief discussion of ISIS (which Obama still annoyingly calls ISIL, with all the stubbornness of an old British imperialist mumbling about Ceylon or Madras), Obama perked up, sounding the most passionate and lively that he ever has about the terrorist group. “But the American people should know that with or without congressional action,” he stated, “ISIL will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them. If you doubt America’s commitment—or mine—to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell. When you come after Americans, we go after you.” If the near-Bushian undertones weren’t evident enough, Obama continued, even more boldly, “It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit.”
It’s hard to know the precise source of Obama’s confidence, but it’s not unfounded: He has led the most domestically significant presidency since at least Ronald Reagan, if not Lyndon Johnson. This past year saw two giant (if still provisional) achievements in foreign policy: a climate deal in Paris and a nuclear deal with Iran. Obama has always seemed to exhibit frustration with a media culture that he considers focused on trivial matters, rather than actual achievements. Tuesday night he seemed to show that he had made a certain amount of peace with his standing in opinion polls precisely because he feels so certain of his standing in the history books.
Even so, the best part of the speech was the least jaunty. “When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that does not make us safer,” Obama stated with dead seriousness. “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.” Obama was signaling that he knew the rhetoric on race and immigration and Islam is much worse than it was when he took office. It is one area where the president and his administration, despite their best efforts, have not left the country on stronger footing. And in the midst of an otherwise buoyant performance, the president seemed to recognize that, on some issues, it isn’t time for an end-zone dance.