President Obama with Vice President Joe Biden, left, and newly installed House Speaker Paul Ryan during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. (Time)

President Obama claimed he had the long view in sight when he addressed both houses of Congress, as well as the American people, in Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, but much of the work of his final appeal had to do with securing his legacy as his presidency recedes into the past—and boosting his party in the near future.

If that feat of chronological contortion wasn’t ambitious enough, Obama stood before a packed chamber attended by seasoned Capitol Hill players who knew their cues well enough to give the requisite ovations but not necessarily their support in his effort to deliver both a speech and the reminder he still has the power to push his agenda for one more year.

The president struck a congenial yet cocksure pose in delivering his SOTU sendoff, during which he attempted to carry off the impossible task of appearing as all presidents to all voting publics. Over the course of an hour, he shape-shifted from champion of capitalism to populist rattler of Wall Street’s gilded cage, party loyalist to bipartisan apologist, domestic hearth-tender to hawkish terrorist-hunter.

It follows that this provided a setup for self-contradiction, which occurred at various moments throughout his performance, even if the incidents were set apart by a slew of words and ideas. In one example, Obama drew upon right-leaning reasoning and the language of impersonal “trends” and forces to explain the widening gap between the upper and lower income brackets, declaring, “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” But later in the script, he used different terms to frame the Great Recession and its aftermath, veering left while stating just as definitively that “food stamps did not cause the financial crisis—recklessness on Wall Street did.”

Some of the themes and hot buttons Obama hit upon included climate change, criminal justice reform, health care reform, immigration, income inequality, alternative energy, gender equity, racial disparity, foreign policy, Islamic State and global terrorism, Islamophobia, partisan rancor, opening channels to Cuba, closing Guantanamo, education and student aid, same-sex marriage and gun control.

The president posed four big questions—about the economy, technology, foreign policy and domestic unity—which he invited his immediate and extended audience to troubleshoot with him for one more year and on into his successor’s White House tenure.

“I’m going to try to make it shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa,” he cracked as he took the podium in the midst of a contentious campaign season.

It wasn’t all that short in the end, but that wasn’t the point anyway. Instead, Obama’s main task was to give his take on his own presidency, a kind of executive privilege reserved for history’s winners—whether by vote or by force.

Read the full text of Obama’s final State of the Union speech here.

Watch the video of the speech below (via the White House):

—Posted by Kasia Anderson


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