By Sydney Tomlinson
Last Tuesday night, President Barack Obama began his seventh and final State of the Union address with, as we have all come to know and (perhaps) love, a joke. “And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa,” he chuckled, the first of a number of quips at the Republican presidential candidates.
Although never named, Donald Trump was a major target throughout the speech, as President Obama warned against the dangerous radical rhetoric of Trump, as well as other Republican candidates. “He critiqued Trump’s pessimism on the economy, his gripes about America’s lost standing in the world, and, above all, his stoking of discord against immigrants and refugees,” wrote Jim Tankersley for The Washington Post.
Using a structure consisting of four core questions to drive his speech, focused on the economy, technology & climate change, foreign policy, and partisan politics, respectively, Obama highlighted the accomplishments of the past seven years, as well as his goals and hopes for the future. These themes are noticeably different from those of the past few State of the Union speeches, but this is not unusual; a president’s final State of the Union is nearly always utilized as an opportunity to showcase the administration’s accomplishments while urging support of their party in the upcoming election, and last week’s address was no exception. Many have compared this speech to those from Obama’s 2008 campaign, and this year’s messages of hope, optimism, and focus on the future are clearly reminiscent of his first “Change”-driven campaign.
The State of the Union is arguably the most exciting, highly anticipated, and significant event in American politics, save for presidential election years, when it is undoubtedly eclipsed by Election Day. In this year’s address, President Obama simultaneously heralded the victories of the past seven years, warned against the rhetoric of the Republican Party, and expressed the need for further progress, yet was able to remain positive as he declared “that the State of our Union is strong.”
As we discuss and dissect the complex and significant statements President Obama made last week, we rarely acknowledge the fact that the words were not entirely his. Granting recognition to speechwriters, and most presidential aides, at that, is unusual, in part by design. If you’re not an avid fan of TV political-dramas, you may not even be aware that speechwriters exist; I like to think of the job as more The West Wing and less Olivia Pope, but the various fictional characters all have shared roots. In 1937, President Roosevelt’s Brownlow Committee argued that the ideal aide “should be possessed of high competence… and a passion for anonymity,” and Cody Keenan, President Obama’s current Director of Speechwriting and the man behind the State of the Union addresses from 2013-2016, cites this 1937 statement as his personal mantra. While Obama, a writer himself, plays a larger role in the creation of his more prominent speeches than many past presidents, Keenan and the rest of the president’s speech-writing team play a crucial role in Obama’s public persona, and there is no bigger night for this team than the State of the Union, when they are responsible for communicating both the accomplishments and goals of the administration to over 30 million Americans.
To effectively reach that wide and diverse audience, the messages are carefully crafted to be tough, confident, and strong. Obama’s speech was positive and promising as he pushed for further action on issues such as gun control, immigration, and equal pay, he called out the Republican Party on climate change and the economy, and he admitted regret. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr. twice, both times repeating the phrase, “unarmed truth and unconditional love,” and he spoke of the “voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far… Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word.” His speech was hopeful at its root, as he pushed for continued progress, both in his final year in office and in the future beyond. “But such progress is not inevitable. It is the result of choices we make together,” he stated.
As he advocated for further change while celebrating the accomplishments of his administration, he praised the curious and innovative spirit that exists within the American psyche, as he proclaimed, “That spirit of discovery is in our DNA. We’re Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. We’re Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. We’re every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world. And over the past seven years, we’ve nurtured that spirit.”
The president knows the work that remains to be done in our country is not as sweet or simple as analogies or speeches. He recognized that, even with the growth that has occurred during his presidency, there is still much to be done. “It won’t be easy. Our brand of democracy is hard,” he acknowledged. Yet as he admitted the difficulty that will await the next president, he expressed his hope for our future; “but I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen… You’re the reason why I have such incredible confidence in our future.”
Last week, Obama ended this final State of the Union with a phrase strangely similar to that of a beloved early-2000s TV show, as he declared, “That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted.” In other words: “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.” While the speech in its entirety was comprised of a combination of Obama’s, Keenan’s, and perhaps, Friday Night Lights’ Coach Taylor’s words, in the end, it was brought back to Dr. King’s enduring decree of hope; “Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future,” Obama proclaimed. There are countless, conflicting opinions on whether the state of our union is, in fact, strong, but the message of hope for the future portrayed in last week’s address resonates across party lines.