Barack Obama never uttered Donald Trump's name, but the President left little doubt that his final State of the Union was delivered as a rebuttal to the Republican frontrunner and “the political hot air” that has buoyed him to the top of the polls.
Standing before Congress for perhaps the last time during his two terms, Obama used his address to both chambers to warn against Trump's rhetoric, which has targeted Muslims as potential terrorists, demonized immigrants, and argued that America is in decline.
“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,” said Obama, who said growing political rancor is among his few regrets of his seven years in office. “We can’t afford to go down that path.”
The sometimes strident President eschewed the traditional litany of policies he wants enacted before he leaves office on Jan. 20, 2017, and instead made his case that his record of success in the White House had, in fact, made America great.
“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction," Obama said, before pivoting to the country's military superiority that Trump regularly dismisses as unsatisfactory. “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.”
Obama cast much of the politics of anger and fear that has shaped the Republican field as a danger, appealing to the dark side of human nature. “How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?” Obama asked his audience at the Capitol and millions more watching on TV and online.
Trump, who had campaigned just hours earlier in Cedar Falls, Iowa, has enjoyed an advantage atop the polls for months, and is heading toward Iowa’s Feb. 1 leadoff caucuses with strong support. Despite months of offensive comments about Hispanics and immigrants, Muslims and women, the former reality television star has maintained his lead over more traditional candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. During Obama's address, Trump tweeted his initial response to Obama, calling the speech "really boring, slow, lethargic—very hard to watch."
With only weeks to go before the first voting of the 2016 cycle, Obama was determined on getting the country to refocus the debate away from Trump's rhetoric.
“We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness,” Obama said. “It’s 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.” Obama argued that rhetoric like Trump’s actually leaves the United States less secure.
Read More: Obama Scolds Trump for Focus on Muslims
Obama’s speech was remarkable for its critical tone toward the political system, which at the moment is reflecting deep uncertainty over national security and worries about the economy.
“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions, different attitudes, different interests,” Obama said. “It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. 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.”
Obama warned that democracy itself is at risk “when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter and the system is rigged.” That’s been the pitch Trump has made in his campaign, and part of his appeal. Yet, Obama cautioned: “Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.”
Obama was not alone in expressing concern about Trump's brand of politics Tuesday night. The Republican response to the State of the Union, delivered by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, seemed to reject Trump's brand of politics as well. "During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices," she said. "We must resist that temptation.”
The remedy, Obama urged, was for citizens to vote in a way that stands up for others, “especially the weak,” and holds onto American ideals. The call had echoes of his 2004 speech to Democrats in Boston, an appearance that helped promote him to the national stage as a little-known Senate candidate from Illinois. Then, he said the United States was not a nation divided into Red States and Blue States. Now, he’s saying the country is a patchwork of faiths and races, social classes and ambition. “We’re every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world,” Obama said in an early swipe at Trump’s brand of politics. “And over the past seven years, we’ve nurtured that spirit.”
The question Obama is putting to voters who will soon cast ballots to pick presidential candidates is whether to uphold those ideals, or to adopt a more aggressive posture. “Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” Obama asked. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”
That’s the question voters will answer in the coming months.