President Obama's State of the Union message on Tuesday night focused on the future.
This, his final such message, was not a predictable wish list of goals and hopes for the coming year. Rather he took the long view, in his words, "I want to focus on the next five years, the next 10 years, and beyond. I want to focus on our future."
In doing so, the president framed his speech around four questions: "First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what's best in us, and not what's worst?"
Mr. Obama painted in broad strokes and legitimate criticisms can be made that his answers to these questions at times lacked specificity. How, for instance, can the average citizen change the structural dynamics that have caused gridlock in Washington D.C. and given big money an inordinate say in our politics?
The president was at his strongest in rightly claiming that American is still great and in appealing to the big-hearted attitude we have at our best. "America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of new immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, movements to expand civil rights," he said. "Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change; who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears."
The president proudly laid claim to the accomplishments of his seven years in office: the Affordable Care Act, more than 14 million new jobs created, a booming auto industry, progress on climate change, avoiding a war with Iran and even threw in the current price of gasoline. On the international front, he rightly claimed our military is the greatest in the world and that the global community still looks first to the United States for leadership. While ISIL and al-Qaeda present a real threat to Americans that needs to be crushed, these groups do not present an existential threat to our nation. There is no need for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.
"We don't need to build (these terrorist groups) up to show that we're serious, and we sure don't need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world's largest religions," he said. "We just need to call them what they are — killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed."
Though he did not mention them by name, the president was clearly answering the fear and resentment drummed up by Republican presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Sen.Ted Cruz.
"We need to reject any politics -- any politics -- that targets people because of race or religion, Mr. Obama said. "This is not 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 added, "His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot that I'm standing on tonight that 'to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.' When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, 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. It betrays who we are as a country."
In looking to the future, well past the end of his presidency, Mr. Obama was saying: "We're still great, let's stay true to our highest ideas and together tackle the challenges that face us."