Barack Obama channels Reagan and JFK in State of the Union

President Obama speaks at the Pentagon last December

President Obama speaks at the Pentagon last December

President Barack Obama‘s final State of the Union address last night was marked by an optimistic, confident tone in promoting America’s values and its leadership position for the future. In doing so, Obama was reminiscent of two presidents who loom large in our recent history: Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.

First, as the State of the Union transcript shows, President Obama adopted many words of the political center, and even appropriated some from conservatives. For example, Obama mentioned the word “security” many times, referring to national security, economic security and “security for our families.” Likewise, Obama said that “priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks” [emphasis added]. Obama even used that favorite conservative word “freedom,” but in the very different context of “the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.” These are important, popular ideas and words whose use we called for in the very first Messaging Matters post back in 2011, as well as subsequent posts.

Second, President Obama talked about the future in a confident, optimistic way. Obama evoked Kennedy when calling for “a new moonshot” to eradicate cancer, referring to America’s space program under Kennedy which eventually put a man on the Moon. Likewise, Obama talked about climate change in future terms, maintaining that America could lead not only in lessening harm to our planet, but also in generating a lot of new business and jobs in renewable energy technology.

Third, President Obama may have reminded some people of Reagan and JFK by touting “American leadership in the 21st Century.” Obama talked about leading “nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change.” And the President mentioned that the U.S. has hit ISIL (a/k/a ISIS) with over 10,000 airstrikes thus far, as well as killing Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders.

Fourth, President Obama confidently talked about his record, couching it as a set of accomplishments not just by him but by America. This was especially true on the economy, where Obama pointed out that, under his leadership, American businesses have created over 14 million new jobs over 70 consecutive months, a record. Additionally, Obama mentioned that unemployment is at its lowest rate in seven years, all while the deficit has been cut by nearly three-fourths, which is something Republicans only dream about.

Finally, Obama once again called for a political climate change, where elected officials work together and compromise in a spirit of cooperation even where they disagree on issues. Obama broadened this theme to remind us that American values include tolerance toward people of other faiths, races and ethnic groups, making a veiled reference to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has repeatedly attacked groups of people such as Mexican immigrants, Muslims and women. In this regard, Obama engendered some agreement by the Republican State of the Union respondent, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who talked about inclusiveness toward “race or religion,” removing a symbol of hate, i.e., the Confederate flag, and not having to be “the loudest voice in the room to make a difference.” It remains to be seen, however, whether other politicians and those in the political media will have an interest in focusing on President Obama’s stated goal of promoting common American values over partisan ones.

Photo by Ash Carter, used under Creative Commons.




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