President Obama's final State of the Union address was a frank admission that he felt he could have done more for America, and should have been able to, when he was allowed to by Republicans.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama said America should harness innovation and not be intimidated by it. He called for a “moonshot” effort to cure cancer, to be led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., who lost his son to the disease last year.
The address before a joint session of Congress departed from Mr. Obama’s past practice of outlining executive actions intended to sidestep gridlock in Washington.
Instead, Mr. Obama sought to pose and answer the four central questions his aides said were driving the debate about America’s future, including how to ensure opportunity for everyone, how to harness technological change, how to keep the country safe, and how to fix the nation’s broken politics.
He called for an end to gerrymandering — the gaming of political districts to ensure one party’s advantage — reducing the influence of secretive campaign contributions and making voting easier. Mr. Obama also called on Americans to get more involved in politics and participate, a theme of his first campaign and of his presidency.
The speech was one of Mr. Obama’s few remaining opportunities to shape the public conversation before the nation’s attention shifts to the campaign to replace him that is already underway. Except for a final address at the Democratic convention this summer, Tuesday night might have been Mr. Obama’s last big speech.
“I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa — I’ve been there,” he said at the start, acknowledging that the political focus is on the state, which holds the country’s first nominating caucuses.
Mr. Obama was determined that the address be forward-looking, aides said, even as his time remaining in the White House is limited. The president called for compromise with Republicans on an overhaul of the criminal justice system, approval of a broad free-trade agreement spanning the Pacific Rim and new initiatives to address poverty and the opioid crisis in the United States. He proposed to provide jobless workers with retraining in addition to the unemployment payments they already received.
In an effort to find common ground with Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Mr. Obama noted that Mr. Ryan, a Republican, supports expanding a federal tax credit for low- and middle-income workers. “Who knows, we might surprise the cynics again,” he said, noting a bipartisan budget agreement they struck late last year.
And he repeated past calls for legislative action on his domestic initiatives that have fallen short, including raising the minimum wage, revising the nation’s immigration laws and enacting stricter gun restrictions.
It was less of a challenge of issues and more of a "It's my last year guys, cut me some slack" directed at both Republicans who probably would oppose efforts to research a cure for cancer if Obama called for it, and at Democrats who have spent the last seven years moaning about what could have and should have been.
We'll see if it motivates anything like an effort to come together to do something useful, but after all this time and all this rancor, it was more of an appeal to those who may be so exhausted of fighting this President that they just leave him alone long enough to get a couple last boxes on the list ticked off.
Which, frankly, is the best we can hope for at this point.