President Obama told a few jokes during his final State of the Union address. The best one, though, was so couched in the language of humility and high-mindedness that it flew right over everyone’s heads.
Claiming that one of his “few regrets” was that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said: “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 surely knows as well as anyone that Abraham Lincoln’s election led directly to the Civil War. As for Franklin Roosevelt, here’s what he had to say about the one percent of his era: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
In fact, we live in divisive times—a moment when we can’t agree on issues ranging from gun control to climate change; when Republican representatives and senators Tuesday night couldn’t bring themselves to offer even tepid applause for Obama’s call for universal pre-kindergarten and “more great teachers for our kids.”
The unnamed guest at the State of the Union—and in South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s Republican response—was Donald Trump, who has emerged as the exemplar of that divisiveness, and a dangerous one at that. Defying all predictions (including mine) that he would fade by the time the presidential campaign got serious, Trump continues to loom large, offering little other than an authoritarian appeal to rage and racism.
Obama addressed Trump with this: “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. 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.”
Haley, calling herself “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants,” also addressed Trump directly, though, like Obama, she did not name him: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
It was a poignant moment for perhaps our two most successful nonwhite political leaders—both Christians, one suspected by his enemies of being a secret Muslim, the other raised a Sikh. But it remains to be seen whether it will do any good. As you may have heard, right-wing controversialist Ann Coulter responded on Twitter that “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”
At Talking Points Memo, liberal journalist Josh Marshall called Obama’s speech “a rebuke to the Trumps and the Cruzes” and, for the rest of the country, “a wake up call, a friendly reality check.” He also described the Trump moment that Obama was addressing in apocalyptic terms—which increasingly strikes me as appropriate:
We’re in the midst of a presidential primary race which has antics and spectacle but, taken in full, is putting on display a dark side and dark moment in America. Not to put too fine a point on it but an avowed white nationalist group is running campaign advertisements for the Republican frontrunner. And it doesn’t seem to be taken as that big a deal. The frontrunner himself can’t even bother to disavow it.
Will any of this have an effect? As other observers have noted, Haley was chosen to give the response by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and she no doubt said exactly what they wanted her to say. If the Republicans somehow manage to choose a normal nominee, she would make a logical running mate.
But Trump’s core supporters—angry, less educated white men—are probably no happier about being lectured to by an Indian-American woman than they are by an African-American. “The target,” wrote Slate’s Jim Newell of Haley’s speech, “would appear to be Trump’s brand of nativism, which, as we know, is also a significant share of Republican voters’ brand of nativism.”
Or as the conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru put it at National Review:
Won’t Trump and his supporters be able to claim vindication from the fact that both President Obama and the Republican respondent to him, Nikki Haley, gave speeches that attacked him? Indeed, that obviously reflected an obsession with him? He wants to stand against the leaders of both parties, and today they both obliged.
Dana Milbank, a liberal columnist for The Washington Post, praised Obama’s speech, writing that “in the current environment, there is nothing more important than answering the dangerous demagoguery that has arisen.” You could say the same about Haley, whose remarks were less pointed, but who had a narrower path to walk given that she was calling out a fellow Republican.
We’ll find out during the next few weeks whether it did any good. To return to Lincoln and FDR, we presumably ought to be able to get through this moment without a civil war, and we’re finally recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of Roosevelt’s time.
What we really need—to invoke a considerably less distinguished president—is a return to normalcy. It will be up to the voters soon enough.