The President’s SOTU speech was classic Obama. Obama may indeed be tired and worn out but last night he sounded like someone who wished the 22nd amendment to the Constitution on two term limits would not have been enacted. He loved to campaign and he did it so well. Now he is beginning his version of the Derek Jeter or Kobe Bryant farewell tour kicked off with a rousing State of the Union Address. Obama will milk the next year for all it is worth. He only really has less than ten months until early October to score points, before Congress breaks to campaign. Any battles after November 8, Election Day, really will be for or against his successor.
On substance he gave himself credit on the economic turnaround, social policy changes, and foreign policy issues. His remarks on foreign policy continued to show a weak set of cards regardless of how he shuffled them. He actually commended himself for fighting terrorism effectively and correctly. Obama distinguished between fanatics—who will always exist and can never be totally eliminated—and nation sponsored terrorism. While he would suggest his record here was impressive, he continues not to want to admit that Muslim religious fanatics need to be called out by their name; that doing so does not demean Islam.
For Bernie Sanders it was also a good night while for Hillary it was less so. Sanders responded in the post speech interviews with enthusiasm and excitement. While he does have a problem with his votes on gun control, he continues to skirt the issue and bathes in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls where he is looking more and more favorable. While Clinton remains the overwhelming likely Democratic candidate, she should not have been off camera last night and conceded the evening to Bernie; a stage that he milked for all it was worth.
Like much of the American public the Congress went through the motions last night but without much enthusiasm. Speaker Ryan played his role quietly. He did not applaud, did not stand up, and appeared to wish he was back home in Wisconsin. Democrats were dutiful and Republicans struggled to be appropriate. Both sides probably knew that ratings for the SOTU show would be low so why make the effort. Given the hostile mood in Washington—admitted by both the President and Governor Haley—for many in attendance it was all about form and being correct.
Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina did herself, her state, and the mainstream of the Republican Party a big favor in her State of the Union response presentation. She came across as articulate, in command, and not strident. Haley showed a side of the Party that has lost favor in the polls nationally and placed herself again in a list of rising GOP stars. By selecting a non-Washington personality, a child of immigrants, and a compassionate conservative the Republican leadership continued to try to subtly derail the Trump-Cruz express trains. The moment of truth will come in the February when South Carolina hold it open GOP primary. (For the Republican presidential aspirants, their response comes on Thursday night when their penultimate pre-Iowa debate is scheduled.)