Key Moments in President Obama’s Final State of the Union Speech

The President’s final State of the Union address included numerous insightful and inspiring passages, along with a few that were puzzling or problematic. Here are my reflections on some key moments in his address:

  1. We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections — and if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution. We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do. But I can’t do these things on my own. Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.

One of the most important things President Obama can do as his time in office winds down is to bring the issue of political reform to the forefront of our political debates. We really do need a second Progressive Era to respond to this second Gilded Age. And that means that political reform, not just policy reform, is needed. Redistricting reform is critical for increasing the number of competitive districts and reversing the growing ideological purity of both parties. Campaign finance reform is even more essential. Plutocracies are not genuine democracies. Economic elites dominate both parties and diminish each party’s commitment to the common good. We need politicians who are public servants, not full-time fundraisers. Finally, Catholics recognize the moral imperative of political participation. Making voting easier, rather than more difficult, naturally flows from this commitment to participation.

  1. But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

While it is critical that we fix the structure of our political system, our problems will persist if we lack the culture needed for a free democracy to flourish. We are living in a toxic political environment, filled with rancor and viciousness. Partisanship is so extreme that one can only draw the conclusion that many of our fellow Americans are willfully ignorant. People are ignoring facts and parroting absurd narratives, because they value their identity as a member of a political party or proponent of an ideology more than the truth. They trap themselves in bubbles that isolate themselves from genuine dialogue. This climate inhibits our ability to come together to confront the serious challenges we face and work toward the common good.

  1. That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith. His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I stand tonight that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, 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.

Taking a cue from Pope Francis, President Obama addressed the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment and called on us to rise above this bigotry. This needed to be said. Leading Republican candidates are betraying one of George W. Bush’s finest legacies: making it crystal clear that the United States is not at war with Islam and that discrimination against or violence toward Muslim Americans is a betrayal of everything this country is about.

  1. Right now, we are on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and we have the capacity to accomplish the same thing with malaria — something I’ll be pushing this Congress to fund this year.

President Obama framed most of his calls for action on enlightened self-interest, playing to the bourgeois liberalism (of the left, right, and center) that permeates much of American politics, but this was one of the exceptions, calling for bold action in the spirit of solidarity. Ending the scourge of AIDS and malaria may very well be in our interests, but far more importantly, it would save millions of lives; this is a call to look beyond ourselves and help achieve something great and truly worthy. Christians are called to see the value and worth of each of these lives and to support policies that are driven by a love-based commitment to justice. We need more goals like this.

  1. Fortunately, there’s a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power (rather than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians)…. That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.

President Obama’s disconnect from reality on Syria has long been apparent, but this is still kind of stunning. Not only has he deluded himself into thinking that his stumbling policy of years of inaction and halfhearted efforts (often disconnected from his rhetoric) was absolutely the right path to take, he is actually using it as a model for what a smart approach looks like. It is likely that 300,000 Syrians have been killed since Bashar al-Assad began murdering peaceful protesters. Half the country is displaced from their homes, sparking a refugee crisis. ISIS has risen back up and seized a great deal of territory. If President Obama sees these disastrous outcomes as the outgrowth of a smart policy, he should never have been given the responsibility to be the commander-in-chief.

  1. Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever; we shouldn’t weaken them, we should strengthen them. And for Americans short of retirement, basic benefits should be just as mobile as everything else is today.

In a time of growing economic insecurity, efforts to weaken the safety net are senseless and immoral. We need a better conservatism that enhances economic security, while trying to foster greater opportunity, not one blinded by free market fundamentalism and a militant commitment to economic libertarianism. Center-right parties in Europe and elsewhere, often more influenced by Catholic social teaching than social Darwinism, recognize the need for a strong social safety net. We need a bipartisan consensus that people are entitled to their most basic needs.

  1. Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.

This is an important reality check. Conservatives around the world accept the reality of climate change. They recognize the need to protect God’s creation, and many see this as a fundamentally conservative cause. But again, right-wing American ideologues stand alone and oppose measures that are needed to safeguard the environment for not only future generations, but all of the people who are already suffering because of climate change. We can only hope that those who embrace climate change denialism feel increasingly isolated and alone.

  1. After years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else; or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered. Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts. In this new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less. The rules should work for them.

“Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Abraham Lincoln said this over a century and a half ago and it remains true today. The economy must serve people. The universal destination of goods, the right to bargain collectively, and the various other principles that define the Catholic commitment to social and economic justice are rooted in this belief. We need rules that recognize the primacy of human persons and their rights as children of God.