State of the Union: Obama's complicated victory lap

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  • 9 commentators weigh in on President Obama's final State of the Union address, an upbeat speech aimed at legacy-building

(CNN)CNN asked for views on President Obama's final State of the Union address Tuesday night, an upbeat, legacy-building speech in which he touted his domestic successes, acknowledged Americans' fears in a world roiled by terror, and called on Americans to help end the nation's partisan divide. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

David Gergen: A broad agenda for liberalism

David Gergen
Trying to evaluate President Obama's sweeping speech in a short space cannot do justice to either his supporters or his critics. There was too much said -- and left unsaid.
    His supporters could rightly cheer that he laid out a broad agenda for liberalism five to 10 years into the future. No outgoing President has done that as well since Franklin Roosevelt, whose 1944 State of the Union provided a domestic roadmap for the Democratic Party for decades after. Obama had a shorter-term goal: to elect a Democrat this fall who will defeat the likes of Donald Trump and build on the Obama legacy.
    But I doubt that Obama won over many independents or any Republicans. The speech pretended to be a thoughtful, relatively objective appeal for bipartisanship, but time and again, he presented a one-sided view of reality that was deeply partisan. Yes, jobs have been growing month after month, but where was the recognition that overall economic growth has been half of what it was for a half century after WWII or that markets are signaling dangers of a serious slowdown ahead?
    Yes, he brought home a nuclear deal with Iran but where was the acknowledgment that Iran has been misbehaving since? Why didn't he object to Iran seizing our sailors and promising a harsh response if they didn't release them by sunrise? Yes, the United States helped to negotiate a climate deal but where was the acknowledgment that France deserves enormous credit as well -- perhaps even more?
    Not for the first time a presidential State of the Union took credit for almost every good thing that has occurred but took almost no blame for, or ignored altogether, what has gone wrong. Many agree with him on his ideas but at least as many don't. Why does he present arguments in ways that appeal to believers but make others feel intentionally excluded from conversation? Does it occur to the White House that that smacks of basic arrogance?
    The world today seems increasingly unhinged and dangerous to most Americans. Obama has done many good things to improve it. But his speech would have been far more effective if he had spoken candidly and honestly about where we are and where he wants us to go as a people.
    David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen.

    Elaine C. Kamarck: Sad reality intrudes on a victory lap

    Elaine Kamarck
    President Obama's last State of the Union address will stand out for its attention to our sick political system. In perhaps the most poignant moment of his speech, Obama admitted to his own failures. "It's one of the few regrets of my presidency," he said, "that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There's no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office."
    Obama began his presidency trying to be the "post-partisan" President, and instead of moving the country in that direction, his two terms in office are ending in one of the ugliest presidential campaigns ever.
    By this State of the Union Obama had lots of good things to report. Indeed, as he said, the American economy is the strongest in the world. He gave perhaps the most coherent description of his foreign policy thus far by reminding us that terrorists do not pose a threat to America's existence.
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    He took on the climate deniers and applauded the amazing progress America has been making in developing clean energy technologies. And he took many jabs at the front-running Republican candidate Donald Trump, including reminding us that "...we need to reject any politics -- any politics -- that targets people because of race or religion. This isn't a matter of political correctness."
    And yet, in spite of the well-deserved victory lap, there was something sad in this final State of the Union. The President tried to pull us out of the hatred and ugliness by talking about "unarmed truth and unconditional love." But in the context of America's politics today, that remains even more of an aspiration than it was eight years ago.
    Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at Brookings and the director of the Management and Leadership Initiative there. She is the author of "Primary Politics: Everything You Want to Know about How America Nominates its Presidents."

    Errol Louis: Speech is no help to Democrats in 2016

    Errol Louis
    Democrats running for office this year -- from the presidential contenders down to local offices -- got very little political help from President Obama's final State of the Union speech. Far from serving as a unifying call to arms for the President's party, the speech outlined priorities that liberal Democrats will have to apologize for and moderate Democrats will have to disavow if they want to win this fall.
    Obama said little or nothing about important core Democratic issues, including gun regulation, the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico, the national debate over policing and justice in black communities, the fight for a higher minimum wage and the current attack on the right of unions to organize. Passing over these issues at a time when people are protesting in the streets amounts to a slap in the face to part of the activist base of the party -- people that Democrats will be asking to turn out at the polls in big numbers later this year.
    On foreign policy, Obama struck a defensive, quasi-isolationist tone -- "how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?" he asked -- at a time when many Americans are concerned about the startling, global violence generated by ISIS.
    Democrats running on a strong national security policy will have to distance themselves from Obama's stance on "Syria, where we're partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace," or on Iran, for which Obama proudly cited "a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran."
    That nuanced approach, heavy on diplomacy, has yielded a regional war, millions of refugees and a foothold for terrorists -- a record that is mixed at best, and not a legacy Obama's fellow Democrats will be eager to seize.
    Obama also argued for renewable energy and the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, measures that threaten middle-class jobs in many communities. Democrats hoping to win back working-class communities that have flipped Republican will find that many workers want and expect straightforward protectionist promises from candidates.
    Obama quite rightly used his final State of the Union address to summarize his achievements, including the administration's investments in renewable energy and the extension of health care to 18 million formerly uninsured Americans.
    But Democrats running this year, who must tackle a long list of issues left unmentioned, may wish they had a president ready to join the fights being waged by the active core of the party -- the political troops they should be helping to get excited about facing a showdown with highly motivated Republicans in November.
    Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

    Julian Zelizer: Obama makes case for another Democratic President

    Julian Zelizer
    With the State of the Union, President Obama has attempted to offer a more realistic and positive assessment of his time in the White House than most Americans have been hearing about.
    Constantly frustrated by the fictional quality of the nation's political discourse, the President used most of his time to outline what he has accomplished and where the nation is going. "We're in the middle of the longest streak of private sector job creation in history," he said.
    Even with the many problems we face, America, the President argues, is better off by most measures than when he started in 2009. His explicit goal was to redirect the national conversation in a way that will be more beneficial when historians assess his time in office.
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    His other objective was political, namely, to provide voters with a reason to select a Democrat to replace him. To that end, he took some shots at Donald Trump: "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 problem for President Obama is that the State of the Union isn't what it used to be. If he hopes that this address can counteract the powerful currents of opposition that have affected public understanding, he is wrong. The State of the Union reaches a much smaller audience than in the past. People once had to watch the address on television, but now it is easy to tune into something else.
    When President Clinton delivered his first State of the Union in 1993, 67 million Americans watched. Last year only 31.7 million watched, and the White House said there were only about 1.2 million views of its speech via video stream.
    Besides, the politicized news media on parts of cable television and the Internet offers a permanent platform for conservatives to continue to speak out about the disasters they believe have happened since 2009, while much of the electorate is polarized and unwilling to budge.
    So President Obama's effort will have a limited effect. He inhabits a political universe where there really isn't any bully pulpit to speak of, and where the opponents of the White House have more than enough platforms to keep spreading their gospel.
    Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society."

    Ana Navarro: Long on platitudes, short on proposals

    Ana Navarro
    If you support President Obama, this was his last State of the Union, and you should have watched with nostalgia. If you oppose President Obama, this was his last State of the Union. Rejoice!
    For days, President Obama's staff have been touting this speech as optimistic. I failed to find the optimism. To me, it was the speech of a President who has rightly or wrongly given up any hope of working with Congress to achieve significant legislation. He made few if any substantial proposals. The speech was about platitudes, lecturing and taking a victory lap.
    Though he dipped deep into poetic prose, this was far from the speech about pundits slicing "our country into red states and blue states" that he gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention. President Obama may have tried to rise above the political divide. He missed the mark.
    There is one meaningful exception. President Obama's proposal last night to launch a national effort against cancer, headed by Vice President Joe Biden, should receive a bipartisan embrace. Frankly -- and I know I speak for so many Americans -- I am damn tired of losing friends and loved ones to this disease. Please, let us unite as a nation and put significant collective resources into eradicating it.
    Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, was national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign. She is supporting Jeb Bush's candidacy for 2016. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.

    John Sutter: A climate message Republicans can love

    The world is in broad agreement on climate change: It's happening, it's worse than we thought, and we need to do everything we can to fix it. That became awesomely clear in December in Paris when more than 190 countries, including the United States, signed a landmark agreement to try to address this crisis.
    All that tends to be lost on most elected U.S. Republicans, however. They continue to insist that the science behind climate change either isn't settled (it is) or that we don't need to do much about it (we do).
    That's what makes President Obama's argument about climate change on Tuesday night so smart and so interesting. "Even if the planet wasn't at stake," the President said, "why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?" In other words: Keep on (wrongly) disputing the science of climate change if you want; but there's a business case to act.
    It's a struggle to depolarize this country's conversation on climate change. And this rhetoric may help to do it. As Obama noted, there are now more jobs in solar power in the United States than in coal.
    Bill Gates and others see huge investment opportunities in clean technology. College students across the country are pushing their institutions to divest from fossil fuels. Abandoning fossil fuels isn't just necessary for the future of the planet -- to save low-lying countries and cities, tame supercharged droughts and avoid mass extinctions -- it's also a way for this country to make money.
    One of Obama's planned guests at the State of the Union, former NBA player Mark Davis, knows this well. As the founder of WDC Solar, which installs solar panels on low-income housing in Washington, Davis is helping to fight the global war on climate change. But did he start this business to try to beat climate change? "To be totally honest, I don't think that was the key motivator," he told me by phone earlier this week. "It's business first."
    This is climate rhetoric even Republicans can love.
    John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice.

    Aaron David Miller: On foreign policy, Obama earns an 'incomplete'

    Aaron David Miller
    Presidential rhetoric rarely persuades; and in the final year of a president's second term it's likely to persuade even less when it comes to a foreign policy of which 56% of the public disapproves. Two thirds of Americans disapprove of his handling of ISIS as well. Here are the takeaways from a foreign policy recap in the President's State of the Union address that was coldly realistic and characteristically risk-averse.
    No mission accomplished. All of the President's major foreign policy accomplishments are works in progress, depend on factors beyond his control; and are likely to succeed or fail after he leaves office. From efforts at rapprochement with Cuba to the implementation of the Iran agreement to the agreement on climate change, the President has set processes into motion whose futures are very uncertain. If you were to grade these successes you'd have to be honest and give President Obama an incomplete.
    If you can't defeat ISIS, belittle it. The President once again chose to underestimate ISIS, describing the group this time not as a JV team, but as a bunch of killers and fanatics riding on the back of pickup trucks. He vowed to destroy it, but at best doing so will be a very long war. Another incomplete because it's not going to happen on his watch.
    America is the greatest ... but. Finally, and paradoxically, Obama rightly touted the fact that America is the greatest power on earth. And yet he all but conceded that there are very few problems that won't require the help of others to solve, maybe. Instability in many parts of the world will continue for decades, he admitted; and the United States can't rebuild every country in crisis. Indeed, the Middle East the President is leaving is going to look a great deal worse than the one he inherited.
    Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

    Maria Cardona: A call to the better angels of our nature

    Maria Cardona
    The President told it like it was tonight. He reminded us that we are indeed the most powerful nation on earth. Period. "Not even close" he said. He reminded us that our economy is the strongest and best one in the world and that any nation would love to switch places with us. And he committed us to curing cancer and put Joe Biden in charge of that mission. Home run.
    President Obama delivered a robust, inspirational, optimistic State of the Union speech -- one that laid out his accomplishments but was also laced with realism. He described the challenges ahead and proposed a road map for overcoming them.
    Issues like climate change, like the growing and changing economy, where workers need to be trained and our kids need to be educated to take advantage of America's technological revolution. He spoke urgently about keeping our children safe from guns and all of us safe from terrorism. President Obama reminded us that the great tradition of this great country is that when we come together to work on real solutions, we always move forward.
    He called out the pessimistic rhetoric that powers his opponents on the right -- especially in this cyclonic election year where hyperbole and outright lies have become the norm -- and he underscored America's accomplishments as proof of our resolve.
    Importantly, he focused on foreign policy and the critical nature of our diplomacy in using every tool at our disposal to ensure the world is a safer place for everyone. He espoused the benefits of leading the world but not going it alone. He touted the Iran deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, the opening up of Cuba as evidence that the strategy is working. He linked our power, our prowess, and our resolve with our values and our principles as Americans.
    He also acknowledged the difficulty for some to accept the diversity of our nation. But he was unbending in calling that diversity a strength and called on all of us to see past our superficial differences and focus on what we each have to offer.
    It was, yes, Lincoln-esque: He urged that our actions be guided by the better angels of our nature.
    Even though it was his last State of the Union, President Obama gave us a strong reminder tonight of why we elected him President. Twice.
    Maria Cardona is a political commentator for CNN, a Democratic strategist and principal at the Dewey Square Group. She is a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and was communications director for the Democratic National Committee. She also is a former communications director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

    Frida Ghitis: Can Obama repair his Middle East legacy?

    Frida Ghitis
    On Tuesday night, President Obama sought to propose an early first draft of the "Obama Legacy" for all those historians planning to write the bestseller. But his eight years in office are not over. He may boast of his foreign policy achievements, but key regions have grown more chaotic and dangerous under his watch.
    What happens in the coming 11 months will help determine what is remembered about his administration. If his term had ended today, the foreign policy chapter in the book would be the least impressive of all: unless a miracle occurs in Syria, Obama's foreign policy legacy will go down in history as that of a President who chose to take a step back at the most crucial moment for the Middle East.
    I am in fact writing this from the Middle East, where many people say they don't know where Obama or America stand, and who they support, on the great issues tearing the region apart.
    Obama deserves credit for the successes he outlined last night: for presiding over a domestic economic expansion after a deep recession, widening access to health care, helping change attitudes on same sex marriage, and for trying -- as he vows to continue doing during the remainder of his presidency -- to bring urgently needed criminal justice reform.
    But he extracted the wrong lessons from the war in Iraq and misapplied them in Syria. And, in an effort to protect his plans for a deal with Iran, he sacrificed the people of Syria, damaged ties with Arab allies, betrayed Arab democracy activists, and mishandled much in relations with Israel.
    In none of these crises is he to blame for all that went wrong, not even close, but as President of (as he noted in his State of Union speech) the world's most powerful country he was in a position to steer events in a different direction.
    Let's all hope, however limited the odds, that he manages to repair that part of his legacy in what's left of his time in office.
    Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis.