President Obama kept it real but played it safe in his final SOTU

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President Obama gave his final State of the Union address Tuesday night before a packed crowd of enthusiastic supporters and critics on the other side of the aisle who have attempted to undermine his agenda from day one. And he covered a lot of ground in the hour-long address. But what was most noteworthy about the president’s speech was not what he said as much as what he did not say, or at least the way he did not say it. Let’s explore this.

Although onlookers might have expected the president — liberated and with nothing to lose and much to gain in terms of cementing his legacy — to articulate something that rhymes with a “bucket list.” That is not to say Obama did not keep it real, because he did stick it to the Republicans to a degree. However, the first black chief executive, on the tail end of his tenure in the White House, did not delve into some of the subject matter one would expect, at least from an African-American perspective. After all, he did not cover the issue of gun violence, one which he forcefully promoted the week before with a suite of executive actions and a town hall meeting on CNN.

Yet, in the State of the Union, he mentioned guns only once. And even as criminal justice reform has shaped up to become one of his signature issues in his second term, the only treatment of the subject was to say, “So I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse.”

Moreover, President Obama failed to mention much about race, the elephant in the room for his entire presidency. Race was the subject of his groundbreaking speech during the 2008 campaign, and it was an issue that gave him some trouble in his first term, as he sometimes appeared to stumble as he faced criticism from a black community that urged him to speak more to their problems. But in his second term, the issue of race has been prominent, but how could it not be the case, given the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the onslaught of police killings of black people, and the push to reform a justice system that operates based on race?

But still, no word from the president on race. However, Islamophobia was a major theme of his address, and the climate that has been created by candidates such as Donald Trump, though he did not mention the candidate by name.

The president insisted that “we need to reject any politics — any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”

“Let me just say this. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. This is a matter of understanding just what it is that 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,” he said.

“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,” Obama added. “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.”

Further, the president rejected the economic scapegoating of immigrants: “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,” he said. “As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” Obama said. “We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”

And President Obama seemed to rebuke Ted Cruz as well, who had called for carpet-bombing ISIS: “The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage,” the president urged.

Throughout the hour, American greatness was a recurring theme, as Obama was a cheerleader on the economy, arguing that the U.S. “has the strongest, most durable economy in the world.”

“We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history,” the president noted. “More than 14 million new jobs, the strongest two years of job growth since the 1990s, an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever.”

And as he dismissed talk of U.S. economic decline, Obama touted America’s military might as well: “Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. Period.”

“It’s not even close,” urged the president. “We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world.” President Obama added, “No nation attacks us directly or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin,” and insisted that America’s standing in the world is higher since he came to office, adding that “when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead. They call us.”

In outlining the successes of his administration, but also focusing on the future, on the next five to ten years, as he said, the president was providing the best case for another Democratic presidency and a clear alternative to the Republicans, with a far different narrative of American nationalism.

“President Obama’s State of the Union address stands in stark contrast to the doom and gloom Republicans are peddling on the campaign trail. Hope, optimism, and faith in the American people have paid off over the last seven years,” said DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda in a statement.

“When the GOP’s candidates take the stage in South Carolina this Thursday for their next debate, they will offer up the same old failed policies,” he added, arguing a Democrat is needed as the next president to move the country ahead. “This year the choice facing the American people is simple. We can go further to broaden opportunity for every American and ensure everyone has a fair shot, or we can go back.”

“His words reminded us of the progress we’ve achieved together as a country, the adversity we’ve overcome, and the difficult road ahead,” said Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.). “Despite such remarkable economic gains, neither President Obama nor I believe that our work is done. Too many working men and women continue to struggle just to provide the basic necessities for their families. Too many communities of color find themselves underserved and disadvantaged.”

In so many ways, this was a different kind of State of the Union speech. President Obama kept it real, even got real more than once. The speech simply did not include what we expected, and perhaps that was his goal.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove