Veteran diplomat Richard Haass turns from foreign affairs to threats from within. He argues Americans focus so much on rights we forget our obligations as citizens -- and the country is suffering because of it.
Guest Host: Derek McGinty
Last night in his final State of the Union address President Obama spoke of America’s strengthening economy and its influence around the globe. We need to remember, he said, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world and that its future is bright. But he also said he regrets that, as president, he has been unable to bridge the partisan divide. Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, who delivered the Republican response, charged that President Obama fell short of his soaring words. Please join us to discuss President Obama’s State of the Union speech.
- Molly Ball Staff writer, The Atlantic
- Ron Elving Senior Washington editor, NPR News
- Nia-Malika Henderson Senior political reporter, CNN
Watch The Speech
MR. DEREK MCGINTYThanks for joining us. I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane Rehm. Last night, in his final State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of America's strength and warned against the rising tide of fear, which is animating some of those Republican presidential campaigns. If it wasn't exactly a goodbye speech, it was certainly reflective, a bit more informal in spots and some felt it was vintage Obama.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYAll the soaring rhetoric calling on Americans to be better. But after seven years in office, the president's oratory was weighed down a bit by the realities of governing a nation now perhaps more divided and more angry. Joining me now to talk about what the president said, how Republicans responded to it and why it all matters for the presidential race that still looms ahead, Molly Ball of The Atlantic, Ron Elving of NPR News and Nia-Malika Henderson of CNN.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYGreat to have all of you here.
MS. MOLLY BALLGreat to be here.
MR. RON ELVINGGreat to be here.
MCGINTYYou know, Ron, I'll start with you. President Obama's aides had promised a different sort of State of the Union address and certainly, at the beginning, at least from my position, it felt sort of informal, at least the first five minutes.
ELVINGThere was a certain amount of humor right from the beginning. He made a couple of little jokes to rib some of the members. He said some of you need to get out of here and get back to Iowa. And said he could give them some tips on hand-shaking and so on. "I've been there," the president said. And there was a little bit of informality with Paul Ryan, thanking him for having worked out a budget deal last fall.
ELVINGOf course, that might be anathema for Paul Ryan to hear the president praising him for cooperating with the president, at least within the Republican party. And so, you know, there was a little bit of that sort of joshing like we all know each other know, don't we, guys? Right at the beginning and then he said, I'm not going to give you a laundry list of all the things that I really care about.
ELVINGAnd then, of course, he ticked off seven things real quickly, almost in self parody. And then, he got into the serious business of his speech and at that point, I think, probably that levity was lost.
MCGINTYYeah. Well, Molly, what was your reaction to his admission that, hey, you know what, I have not been able to change the tone?
BALLThat was a really interesting admission and I think no one could disagree with it. And it was, you know, this was a big sort of framework speech, a vision speech, a speech where we saw a president who's very much an intellectual and who thinks in abstract terms, trying to sort of put a gloss on his whole two terms of the presidency, trying to almost write an essay in theoretical terms about what it is that he has and hasn't achieved.
BALLAnd it's always been interesting with this president, the extent to which he's an almost objective sort of analytical observer of himself. He seems to observe himself at a remove. So we heard him sort of making a case for his legacy and in the course of that also giving himself some negatives as well. That was really the only one. This was not -- there was not an even balance of pros and cons in this speech, but that was a significant one.
BALLAnd it is very significant when you look back on the Obama who was elected almost eight years ago, seven and a half years ago, very much as a figure of national unity and very much on a platform of bringing people together. It is very interesting to see the distance that we have come.
MCGINTYAnd Nia, did you feel that sort of reflective tone that he took on, at least at times during this speech?
MS. NIA-MALIKA HENDERSONYeah. You know, I think he was reflective, particularly in that last part. You know, he laid out essentially four ideas that he wanted to tackle around technology, around expanding opportunity, bridging the political divide as well as security, this idea of how can you keep the nation safe, but also not be the world's policeman, this idea of the Obama doctrine. And what I thought was interesting, even as he was sort of saying that he wanted to heal this political divide, be the repair of the breach, in Clinton's terms many years ago, he also was quite competitive, I thought, and quite critical of Republicans.
MS. NIA-MALIKA HENDERSONEveryone says they're sort of thinly veiled swipes at Donald Trump. They weren't -- they were very overt swipes at the party, swipes at Ted Cruz as well when he talked about this idea of carpet bombing civilians. So I thought we saw this idea where, on the one hand, the country is doing much better -- I mean, if you look at all of the statistics around the unemployment rate, around the gas prices even, there is the sense that things are on the right track, but Americans, on the other hand, are very displeased in feeling that tomorrow won't be as good as yesterday.
MCGINTYListeners, we'll be taking your comments and your questions throughout this hour. The number here is 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. Or you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course, there's always Facebook and Twitter. We have any number of ways for you to join our conversation. I just feel as though the president was, as I said, weighed down a bit by the realities of governing. I mean, it was old school Obama in terms of the soaring rhetoric, but at the end of the day, the Republicans leaned back and said, yeah, but you haven't governed that way.
ELVINGYou know, seven years is a long time. It's also kind of a biblical period of time, you know. And when you measure how the country has changed, on all the points that Nia was just referring to, all those economic measures, it's unquestionably better off and people ought to be feeling pretty good about that, but they're not. That's the simple truth of it. And there are so many people that are dissatisfied that two-thirds, 65 percent of the country, is telling pollsters they think the country's on the wrong track.
ELVINGAnd they also blame the president largely for that because their judgment of this leadership is slightly negative. I mean, it's below 50 percent positive and the president has to own that to some degree because he can talk the way he did seven or eight years ago, but then he was critiquing another president. Now, anything that he says, obviously, has to apply to his own period of time in office. So we can talk a little bit about who's responsible.
MCGINTYCan't blame W. anymore.
BALLThat's right. And it was -- he really did evade responsibility for any of the current conditions and current dissatisfaction. We heard, last night, President Obama's diagnosis of the current state of American politics and his thesis is that people are upset because of change and they're -- and because of economic insecurity. And so if there is a root of the, you know, the Trump phenomenon or the anger that's out there in the body politic, it is this fear of change and anger at economic insecurity.
BALLAnd then, he sources that economic insecurity primarily to disruptions cause by technology. He doesn't, at all, say that any of it has anything to do with his policies.
MCGINTYIsn't that though...
BALLAnd he says, if anything, we need more change.
MCGINTYIsn't that how he has been, though, from the beginning in a lot of ways? The president says, my ideas are working. I just haven't explained it well enough to you.
MCGINTYThat's the problem.
HENDERSONAnd I haven't been able to get enough of them done.
HENDERSONThat he sort of always blames his communication failings. And even in this speech, he said, listen, if I had the skills of a Lincoln or Roosevelt, maybe I could do better in terms of bridging this political divide, but not much in the way of blame in terms of being able to do what he was able to do in 2004, I think, which was really tap into this longing for hope and change and really inspire people.
HENDERSONGranted, most Democrats are still very happy with this president, but there isn't a sense of sort of unity in the country behind this president. He was trying, I think, to speak to the country, to go above those divisions in that room, but when you look at what's happened, not only to the country in terms of a sense of frustration even in his own party, that crowd, in terms of the Democrats there, has thinned out in those seven years.
HENDERSONThere's been a wipeout on the House side and the Senate, obviously, has been taken over by Republicans.
MCGINTYI have to say, and maybe this is unfair, I wanted to get this -- throw this on the table. Watching toward the end of the speech, people looked bored and tired and I thought it was -- actually, sitting at home in great comfort, I felt like, oh, this is a pretty good speech. But in that room, it looked to me like even partisans on the Democratic side were leaning on their hands. You saw some yawns, some folks kind of falling asleep.
MCGINTYAnd I said, wow, is the magic completely worn off?
BALLWell, I would say two things about that. I would say, first of all, unlike other States of the Union, this speech was not directed at the chamber. This was very much a campaign speech directed at the American people and so some of the stuff at the end where he got into the soaring rhetoric about people coming together, that's not something members of Congress want to hear.
HENDERSONOh, but Democrats should want to hear that and be excited about it.
BALLAnd the other thing, too, is that he lied about it being a short speech.
MCGINTYYes, he did.
BALLHe said at the beginning, I'm gonna keep this short and this was the second longest State of the Union of his entire presidency.
MCGINTYYeah, and definitely saw some of those 3 or 4-year-olds in there, they were having a rough night.
HENDERSONAnd these speeches are just hard to make kind of great rabble-rousing speeches. I mean, even though he said, oh, I'm not gonna get into the laundry list, there was a laundry list, you know, sort of boiler plate Democratic ideas and platforms. So, but yeah, I thought people were a little bored in terms of being in that room. It didn't feel electrifying at all. There was that moment at the end, though, that I thought was interesting as Obama is walking out and you see everybody there trying to get his autograph.
HENDERSONI think some of them were trying to get pictures from the White House Christmas party signed and he said, oh, no, I'll sign those later. But at the end, as he's going out, he sort of turns around and looks at that room. This, of course, is his last State of the Union and he is taking in that moment and it was very much like what he did in 2012 after he -- or 2013 after he made his inaugural address. He turns around and looks at that crowd of people gathered there to see him give that inaugural address.
MCGINTYI think he even said last night, something -- let me look at this one more time.
ELVINGOne more time.
HENDERSONYeah, yeah, one more time.
ELVINGLook at all of that or all of this. And it was a little bit impersonal and a little bit as though he didn't really feel all that much a part of it. He was not in the Senate for very long. That was his only experience in Congress. He was never really a creature of the Congress. He was slipping away to Iowa and New Hampshire pretty quickly, even in his first term, not unlike a couple three of the senators running right now.
ELVINGAnd the president actually does not feel, it doesn't seem,. A great deal of affinity with that institution from which he sprang and that shows in most all his relationships and when he had that mea culpa late in the speech, I thought that was really the most riveting moment of the entire evening. It kind of gave us a little different sense of Barack Obama because he doesn't do mea culpa very often. He doesn't say this my fault. I should've done better.
MCGINTYDo any presidents ever say that?
ELVINGProbably not. Probably not too visibly. But I think there's been a sense on the part -- many of his opponents would say this, that he's been cocky, that he was a cocky senator and that he had gotten to the Senate in very rapid fashion early in his career and that he showed it and that he moved onto the presidency very quickly and kept that attitude.
MCGINTYRon Elving, senior Washington editor at NPR News, Molly Ball, staff writer at The Atlantic, Nia-Malika Henderson, senior political reporter for CNN. I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane Rehm. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYWelcome back. I'm Derek McGinty, sitting in for Diane Rehm, and we are talking about the president's State of the Union and perhaps his legacy and of course the election that's coming our way in now about 11 months or so. Molly Ball is a staff writer at the Atlantic, Ron Elving, senior Washington editor at NPR News, Nia-Malika Henderson, senior political reporter at CNN.
MCGINTYAnd we want to get to your phone calls and emails and Facebooks and the rest of it here, 800-433-8850 is the phone number, and we'll be going there in just a minute. But first, national security. The president spent some time on that last night, and from my perspective, it seemed as though he finally began to channel some of the anger and fear that was part of the atmosphere in this country right after the attacks on Paris. Did you get that?
ELVINGThat's right, but he didn't talk about Paris, and he didn't talk about San Bernardino, and the Republicans were up in arms that he had not even mentioned the 10 Americans sailors who had been taken that day.
MCGINTYWell, they've now been released.
ELVINGOf course the White House was quite confident last night, or at least seemed to be, that they would be released overnight. They seem to have been released overnight. It seems to have been kind of a minor incident. Maybe they ran out of gas, drifted into Iranian waters, were not harmed. But at the time, going into the speech, it was quite exciting as a kind of news blip to get people to actually tune in to their cable television and watch the speech or to listen to the speech, and that kind of got the Republicans thinking that they were going to get a perfect symbol of his foreign policy and on national security in particular.
ELVINGIt didn't really pan out, but they were still upset that he wasn't talking about Islamic terrorism. They were upset that he wasn't pinning this on a cultural, global war.
MCGINTYBut Nia, he did say we need to take them out, and he seemed like he meant it, I thought to myself, it's about time.
HENDERSONThat's right, and if you doubt me, he said, ask Osama bin Laden. And that was one of the big applause lines there. But there was also this other idea of we can't be the world's policeman if, you know, in these failing states we can't rush in and prop up failing states. You know, as the speech was going on, I'm sure your inboxes were filling up with criticisms from Republicans.
HENDERSONPaul Ryan, his office sent something out, basically saying oh, you know, Obama's 30 minutes into this speech, and it's not going well. This is just platitudes and rhetoric, and we've got better ideas. And that was, I think, one of the most interesting things about this speech, as well. It was about the future. Obama was making it about the future, and there you have Paul Ryan, this new, young, fresh speaker, who has since cut of his -- what I thought was a very alluring beard that he had.
MCGINTYYoung and fresh beard.
HENDERSONBut there he was, and then of course Nikki Haley, the governor from South Carolina, a woman, a minority, doing the response.
MCGINTYYeah, but Nikki Haley seemed to give a very similar speech to President Obama. I mean, she definitely threw in some we don't like what he's doing but then said, but we really don't like those people who are being hateful out there.
BALLThat's right, and on one of the talk shows this morning, she confirmed that she was directly speaking to Donald Trump and the Trump phenomenon. And the speech was very well received sort of by -- by the media and by critics but not by the conservative base, who really didn't like her taking on the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, and saying -- you know, I really thought that if you took Obama's speech and Nikki Haley's speech together, it was a sort of cri de coeur of the professional political establishment against the insurgency represented by Donald Trump.
BALLAnd the sort of I think not really partisan uprising that he represents, the populist uprising.
MCGINTYWas it not interesting, and we will get right to the phones, that you had this daughter of immigrants, governor of South Carolina, and of course Barack Obama, the first black president, both last night giving this speech and with the meaning around immigration and difference and who are we against, and who are we for. It was interesting to me.
ELVINGWell, that's not necessarily going to douse the fires of resentment on the part of those who feel that immigration is a great wrong that has gone awry in the United States, whatever its origins and however fine it was for our ancestors to come here. What's going on now is different, and it's out of control. That element of Trumpism, and it's present in some of the other Republican campaigns, as well, that is quite different, and you can understand why they would resent having Nikki Haley be the spokesperson.
ELVINGIt's a very short, little response that the Republicans get to give. Why hand it over to somebody who is going to be accomodationist?
BALLYeah, I think for a lot of people, Trump fans, rank and file Republicans, this was another sign of the establishment being out of step, the establishment just not getting it, the establishment wanting to label these folks as racists and bigots and anti-immigrant. So, you know, it was an interesting move. It was on purpose. You know Ryan pretty much hand-picked Nikki Haley and certainly saw that speech beforehand, an interesting moment for her, and she of course shoots up to sort of the short list of VPers in 2016, unless it's Donald Trump, Ted Cruz.
MCGINTYOr Ted Cruz, yeah.
BALLOr Ben Carson or any of these folks.
MCGINTYLet's get to our phones. Dave in Jupiter, Florida, you are on the Diane Rehm Show.
DAVEYes, good to talk to you folks. Just a few comments. I'm an independent conservative. And, you know, obviously what's going on, lots of us see what's going on and do not like it. I will say that the speech last night, you know, first of all, the president was lecturing us all again. That's one thing. And he started on his first presidency seven and a half years ago. He was going to unite this country. This country has never been more divided. And that's simply a fact.
DAVEDown here in Florida, where it's going to be a swing state, the people that I've been talking to, everybody, are in the same boat. They're looking for leadership, and leadership is what brings the Congress together to get bills done for people. Leadership is what gives us a strong foreign policy. And all we get is lectures from this man. And he belongs in a college lecture hall, and it's the same old thing. There's no leadership with this man, and he's not -- he's divided us, and he continues to divide us.
DAVEAnd this amateurish attack on Republicans last night are what's going to take -- make people look to the Republicans this year.
MCGINTYSo Dave, it's all Obama's fault, it's not those who said we're not going to allow him to accomplish much of anything?
DAVENo, don't -- that's not what I'm saying. He started out in 2000, when he first ran with Joe the Plumber, saying he's going to fundamentally change things. And when you go in with an adversarial comment like that right off the bat, to somebody he was supposed to bring up, it's a bad start there, and this is what has happened. He has no leadership ability to unite people, and that's the problem.
DAVEI was a military commander. I know what leadership is. If you don't have the troops on your side, if you don't tell them that these things, that I'm going to bring you people together for a common cause, this is what happens.
DAVEHe is so ideological that he just can't see past that.
MCGINTYAll right, Dave, thank you so much for the phone call. I've got to part you down there for a minute so we can at least try to respond. Anybody?
HENDERSONWell, I think he raises a really interesting point, which is the impact that the president is going to have on the 2016 election. He talked about the -- you know, Obama turning people off to such an extent that they will vote for a Republican in November, and it is going to be very interesting to see the extent to which Hillary Clinton, if she's the Democratic nominee, wants to ally herself with the president's vision.
HENDERSONWe saw her sending out a supportive tweet last night, and she is very much trying to activate the sort of Obama coalition, but she's running to the left of a lot of his rhetoric, at least in the primary, and it will be interesting to see how she situates herself, you know, how much he's out on the campaign trail, for example, once we get to the fall.
BALLAnd she of course around the State of the Union, certainly this morning and last night, was running an ad about gun control, basically backing up Obama, saying that she's with Obama. This of course is to run to the left of Bernie Sanders on this issue of gun control. But I think you're right. This gentleman has frustrations. I think his frustrations are mirrored widely among Republicans, this idea of a president who seemed to offer such promise in uniting the country.
BALLI quibble with the idea that it's more divided now than it was in the past. I think it's probably divided in the '60s and '70s, and for all sorts of reasons. But this idea about leadership and this president's failings will see -- we'll see how that plays out in 2016, and I think this is why Donald Trump is doing so well, because he is the anti-Obama.
MCGINTYJames in Fayetteville, North Carolina, you're on the air.
JAMESThank you, thank you. I'm about a mile from the Fort Bragg gate, and I listened to your last caller, and I'm one of those people that do believe the president could have united us, and he is a good leader. He is a lecturer, and I do agree he needs to be in a college hall somewhere, but I happen to believe that it's very difficult to move forward in war with a people who never have your back.
JAMESAnd from Day One, it was pretty clear that the experiment of a black man in the White House had to fail. And because of that, I think last night's speech reveals a very ugly darkness in our nation of racism and how deep people are willing to go to not support a person if they're not like that person. And to me, I do think that unity was possible but not as long as a group of people made up in their mind not to unite. And you can't change the mind of anyone who is bound and determined not to support you regardless of what you say, whether it's right or not.
JAMESI mean, President Obama could have been Jesus Christ, and I don't think he would've got the support of certain Republicans. So...
MCGINTYAll right, James, thanks for the call. I want to -- Ron, let's talk about that because there's always been this question in the minds of a lot of people. How much of the opposition to this president was based on we don't like who is, and how much is we don't like his policies?
ELVINGWe will never know, but that will be the core debate about 2009, which was the year that we pivoted from the great hope and change themes of Barack Obama to a pushback period of time that we are still experiencing, essentially. Now he was able to get re-elected in 2012 for a variety of reasons, some of which the Republican Party may want to contemplate as we get closer to November, but there has been, with the 2010 election, the Tea Party election, and then the 2014 election, which was even better for the Republican Party, there has been a great shift in opposition to what was perceived to be the Barack Obama thrust in governing.
ELVINGNow how much of that had to do with how he looks? How much of that had to do with his immigrant background, or his father was an immigrant? How much of it had to do with the fact that he was so proud in the face of that kind of opposition.
MCGINTYBut there was a sense, Nia, that this president had to put up with stuff that others did -- never had to. From Joe, what was his name, Joe from South Carolina.
HENDERSONRight, Joe Wilson.
MCGINTYJoe Wilson in the State of the Union, saying you lie to his face, to any number of other insults, some far more graphic than that.
MCGINTYHe had to deal with a lot of things.
HENDERSONYeah, that's right. I mean, the whole birther debate, which has been revived now with Ted Cruz on the receiving end of that, and certainly, I mean, there are people in the fringes of American society who did not like and will never like Obama simply because he's African-American. But I mean, Ben Carson didn't really have a picnic, either. Neither did Hillary Clinton when she was first lady. There were all sorts of conspiracy theories about that presidency and about that administration.
HENDERSONBut yeah, I think it you talk to certainly African-Americans and people in that Obama coalition, there is a deep belief that a lot of this opposition was driven by race, and that just furthers the divide between Republicans and Dems. There is a real I think toxicity out there around this issue of how Obama was treated and how Republicans will respond to that. And I think that's why you see Republicans trying to rebrand, right, and say listen, this is post-Obama, look at Nikki Haley. Isn't she representative of a new kind of Republican Party, which is what Reince Priebus, the chairman, tweeted out.
BALLBut what is different this year from every other time Obama has given a State of the Union address is the rise of Trump. The birther-in-chief, a man who is overtly exploiting opposition to immigration, opposition to refugees, a very sort of overtly nativist and xenophobic appeal, and so I think we heard -- we are hearing Obama speak to that. We are hearing -- you know, Nia mentioned before that Obama sort of came in with this naïve belief that all of his happy talk about bringing people together could somehow buoy his policies to, like, unanimous consent and very quickly realize oh, shoot, there are people who disagree with me.
BALLAnd that's been sort of the theme of the State of the Union for the past six, seven years. But this year something is different. This year there is a movement out there that isn't based on policy opposition, as much as it seems to be based on a sort of identity politics.
MCGINTYI'm Derek McGinty, sitting in for Diane Rehm, and this is the Diane Rehm Show. We've been pretty critical of the president so far in our broadcast, but the fact is he did have some good things to talk about, even if the GOP didn't like it. You got to five percent unemployment. You got expansion in the alternative fuels market and therefore a decrease in the price of oil and gas. As he mentioned, $2-a-gallon gas ain't bad. So the president did have some good things to talk about.
ELVINGYes, and he could take some credit for particularly rescuing the spirit of the country from the freefall that we were in at the very end of 2008, at the very end of the George W. Bush presidency, because of the collapse of Wall Street and the credit crunch and that all of course coming from the mortgage crisis. And as we learn more about that, we see movies about it, popular films like "The Big Short," as well as all the other work that's been done to explain it, we have more and more reason to be outraged about it.
ELVINGThe president had some credit to take for bringing the country back from that, but that now seems quite remote because we have moved on to a whole new set of problems, and the peace in Iraq that was supposedly going to be, you know, the really overriding achievement of his foreign policy that we had gotten out of Iraq and Afghanistan, that has really turned bitter on him.
BALLAnd there are things the progressives should be happy about, right, that the president in some ways can take credit for and that in some ways activists can take credit for. I mean, if you think about Obamacare, if you're thinking about the easing of our relationship with Cuba, same-sex marriage, the Black Lives Matter movement that has moved this conversation around police brutality into the forefront, although President Obama didn't really mention it much in his speech last night, the fact that everyone seems to want to talk about income equality, from Bernie Sanders to Paul Ryan.
BALLSo there are some strides I think progressives should be happy about and that the president should want to take credit for, and that really explains Bernie Sanders' rise.
MCGINTYSo -- but why, then -- as you all have mentioned this undercurrent of, even on the Democratic side, of unhappiness.
HENDERSONWell, I think the back-to-back callers that we just had are an important reminder that this country is divided, and almost half of Americans still do support the president.
HENDERSONLast approval rating I saw, it was about 50 percent disapproval and 46, 48...
HENDERSONPercent approval. So there is still -- you know, because we are so divided, because it's almost a 50-50 country, Democrat and Republican, you do have almost half of Americans who do still support the president, and at the same time a lot of Democrats who will tell a pollster that they support him are disappointed. They feel that he hasn't been able to get enough done. They blame Republicans to some extent. But they also feel that he has given too much ground in a lot of cases, hasn't been a good negotiator and hasn't been the best advocate for his own points of view.
MCGINTYIt's so funny to hear you say that, that some feel he's given too much ground. because of course on the other side they say he hasn't been willing to bargain enough.
ELVINGYes, and let's remember one other thing about disunity. We have had five presidents since FDR, since the two-term limit, and we have had five presidents who won two terms and actually got to serve them out. Nixon won two but didn't get to serve the second. All five of those presidents gave their final State of the Union, like Obama last night, having to face a Congress controlled and really dominated by the other party. And in some cases, like with Obama, they had come in with their own party in majority. That is the way our pendulum swings.
MCGINTYRon Elving, Molly Ball, Nia-Malika Henderson are our political expertise panel today. I'm Derek McGinty, sitting in for Diane Rehm, and this is "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYWell, welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane and we're talking about the President's State of the Union Address. And apparently, to the immense displeasure of some of our listeners, who feel as though we're being a little too hard on the White House. Let's read some of the comments on Twitter. For example, I disagree with the assessment of Obama's speech. I thought it was masterful and strong and brought me to applause many times. That's from Nancy Golden.
ELVINGWe'll put her down as undecided.
MCGINTYYeah. Here's someone else. Another email. This is from Joyce. She says, I'm so weary of the snarky, dismissive verbiage coming from commentators about almost anything Obama accomplishes, including last night's speech. If Obama has a flaw, it is similar to the problems President Carter experienced. I believe Obama is a deeply good person who has the handicap of trying to work with a Congress filled with people who are not.
ELVINGAnother swing voter. Look, there is a case to be made and it will be made and academically, historically, I think this President is going to fare enormously well. He is going to stack up very well against some of his predecessors and he will probably ripen in the judgment of I think at least academic historians. Again, as one of our better Presidents, maybe even a great President. Mostly because of the things that he either restrained the United States from doing or thought about and decided to take a long view rather than a short view.
ELVINGAnd because he, at least in his own heart, was trying very hard to bridge the deepest divides we have as a country.
HENDERSONNo, I think that's right. Bridging the deepest divides and inaugurating, you know, sort of a cultural shift. I think this White House would very much like to see Hillary Clinton be his successor. No offense to Bernie Sanders fans or any offense to what Joe Biden said yesterday. Seeming to tip his hat to Bernie Sanders. But I do think that is how he sees himself, as this culturally transformative figure, as emblematic of this new America, these demographic shifts, where everybody has a seat at the table and a voice. And Hillary Clinton being sort of the arbiter of that in the next go around.
BALLThis White House has always believed, along the lines of those listeners, that it doesn't get enough credit. I would say that the foreign policy legacy throws a significant wrench into this discussion of how he will be viewed by history. Much of that is still up in the air. And that was by far the most defensive part of the speech last night, as Obama, you know, as we said, there was a little bit of tough talk, but it was very much a pleading for what he's been saying all along, which is ISIS is not as big a deal as people think. People should not be so afraid.
BALLPeople should not see this as, you know, a world shaking conflict. And that we are handling it okay. Most people do not believe that and there is significant uncertainty around a whole lot of different pieces of the foreign policy legacy of this President and I think that is going to determine a lot of how history eventually sees him.
MCGINTYSo you are unsure that he will have as good a legacy as Ron Elving seems to think.
MCGINTYYeah, okay. Fair enough. Let's get back to the phones, if we can. The number here, 800-433-8850, and I think it's Delphine from South Lyon, Missouri. Is it? Delphine?
MCGINTYMichigan. Sorry about that.
MCGINTYNo, sorry. That's my mistake.
DELPHINEHi. Yeah, I agree with the comments you received online. Because I don't think you're at all, or some of the comments have not been at all fair to the President. It think he's been a -- his speech was astute and sincere. My comment is on Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina, who gave the response after the President's speech. She's a lovely, attractive woman and she spoke on an emotional level. She was elected with Tea Party money. She mentioned the murders in the African-American church, which really should have led to the need for gun control.
DELPHINEAnd in, excuse me, those critiquing her, these experienced journalists never picked up on how important it is. And the President has had to resort to other measures, because Congress continuously digs in their heels and gives the impression that the President can do no right.
MCGINTYI think you make some good points, Delphine, and we should know the President didn't mention gun control last night. Some were surprised, Molly.
BALLYeah. I was actually going to pick up on that, that, you know, we had the President do those executive actions on guns last week, and so there was a thought that guns would be a major point of this speech to the extent that he got into policy. And then there was a single mention, right at the top of the speech, when he did that mini-laundry list of quote protecting our kids from gun violence. And that was all. That was all he said about the issue. And I think that was a surprise to people. It seemed to be a surprise to Hillary Clinton, who, as Nia mentioned, put out these ads on gun control timed to coincide with the speech.
BALLShe seemed to expect that this would be a major emphasis and that she could sort of dovetail with Obama on the issue. And then, it was not an emphasis for him at all.
ELVINGThere was an empty chair left for victims of gun violence.
ELVINGIn the gallery next to the First Lady, in among the other guests. That she had an empty seat. And for some, I think that was an encouragement to think it would be a major part of the speech, but it wound up being kind of an empty part of the speech.
MCGINTYJoe from Baltimore. You're on the air.
JOThank you. I want to second some of the things that your commentators, your guests have said online and in person. I've been feeling a feeling of surreality listening to your comments this morning. The theme seems to be disappointment, failure and division. So I'm going to talk about that. Disappointment? I'm deeply disappointed that you on the panel, not each of you to the same degree, but all of you to some degree, have been injecting your partisan and rather sophomoric, unprofessional opinion into the spin on last night's speech. I'm deeply offended by it.
JOI'm deeply offended by your continuing verbal tick of calling the President this President. He is the only President that we have right now. He has been the only President for the past seven years. He was re-elected with a large majority, so when you disrespect this President, you disrespect this Constitution and this electorate.
MCGINTYWell Jo, wait a second, I'm going to say that I don't think anybody here has disrespected the President. I think referring to him as this President...
HENDERSONAnd she just did.
MCGINTY...as you just did. Is just a mention of the fact that he's not the only one that's ever been and there will be another. So, you know, let's be real. It's not any disrespect to the President. Although, you have the absolute right to feel how you feel about what's been said and whether or not you agree with it. Go ahead.
HENDERSONBut you know, I will say Jo is speaking to what I see, I'm from South Carolina, and sometimes I'll go visit my friends, my mother's friends. And sometimes their houses are shrines to the Obamas. You know, there are pictures everywhere. There are calendars, there are photos of the First Lady. There are statues. There is a deep sense of attachment, emotional attachment to this President, President Obama.
HENDERSONThe President. Sorry. Not this President. So I think Jo is speaking to that. And that's fine and that's useful. And I'm glad that she called in and spoke to that. Because that is a reality that oftentimes isn't necessarily covered.
MCGINTYAnd it is not our job to be praising either party.
MCGINTYIt's our job to pick them apart, as a matter of fact. Go ahead.
ELVINGI'm actually fascinated by this distinction between the President and this President. Because when you say the President, sort of capital T, capital P, you're talking about the office, it seems to me. And I remember back in the 1960s you heard quite a number of people say, and in the 1970s, whether we were talking about LBJ or Richard Nixon, you would hear people say, we have to follow the President. You have to respect him as the coach of the team. He is the President. That was a very common theme in those days. And when you say this President, then you personalize it to talking about a particular human being.
ELVINGNow, I can see how that could cut either way. You could either be saying the President in the sense well, I don't really like him, but the office is terribly important from a Constitutional standpoint. But when we're talking about Barack Obama, I think we all have to admit, this man has personalized the Presidency for many Americans, positively for many Americans. He has been the first President they really cared about. They really had emotional connection.
MCGINTYYeah. Fair point.
HENDERSONAnd there is a sense among some of these folks, who are very attached to this President, that he has been disrespected.
HENDERSONI remember all the times I would go on TV or on air and refer to him as Obama and some people would tweet at me and say, listen, you got to call him President Obama.
HENDERSONHe is the President. So there is that.
MCGINTYYeah, it's interesting. I had the same thing happen on the air doing news. People would say, you're referring to him as the President Obama. He should be Mr. President.
MCGINTYOr whatever. And I would say, we said the exact same thing about George W. Bush. You didn't say anything. But as you say, people are very, very attached to this man. Or very, very...
ELVINGHighly personal reaction.
MCGINTYIt's a highly personal situation. Let's go to Stacy in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Go ahead, Stacy.
STACYWell, first, thank you so much for taking my call. I appreciate it. I wanted to say that I agree more with your Twitter, you know, your write in comments that you read earlier. I very much disagree with, kind of, this whole, the opinions of the entire panel this morning. Maybe one of the things that, you know, is being missed, especially when you kind of said, oh, it's boring. Whatever. I was very much interested in the speech. I was very much engaged. I watched the entire thing. I have to point out, I'm a Democrat in Oklahoma. Okay? Of all places.
STACYSo, the reddest state, probably, in the country. And what this speech did for me last night was made me feel exactly how I did eight years ago when I was extremely motivated to do something to make sure we get a President, a Democrat in the White House again. So, you know, there's not a whole lot I can do here, obviously. But I had, back then helped, you know, contribute the state, you know, Missouri was at that time swing. I don't even know if this year it is. I'm gonna assume that it's still probably a mixed bag.
STACYBut, you know, what I'm saying is for people who do support the President, it was a very motivating speech, at least to me. I think he made a lot of phenomenal comments. I think he made a lot of points that needed to be made. You know, and I actually really enjoyed it.
MCGINTYAll right. Well, you know what, Stacy, let me just clarify a little. When I said that I thought that it would -- that there was people who were bored, I said that I enjoyed it, watching from home. But that when they showed the crowd pictures, the cutaways as we call them, it seemed as though the audience was bored.
MCGINTYThat was the point I made, and I think that probably still stands. Go ahead.
BALLWell, and I think she's right. This was a good speech for Democrats. For people who already supported the President, this was a speech that tied together a lot of the themes that have been undercurrents of President Obama's two terms in office. It was a speech that really accomplished what he set out to do. Which was make a larger case for what is happening in America right now. And for his Presidency, looking backward. And for his legacy going forward. Now, it may not be convincing to anybody who didn't already support him.
MCGINTYBut there was little he could have said to convince people who didn't already support him.
BALLThere's little to convince a lot of people who just oppose him. Although there are people in the middle, who probably could go one way or another. I am perhaps naively wedded to a belief that there is a bully pulpit, that people can be convinced. But you know, for people who already support Obama, I do think this was a speech that sort of filled their hearts and reminded them why they supported him in the first place and gave them a sense that this hasn't all just been a scrimmage on the 50 yard line. That something has been accomplished and that there has been sort of a larger vision undergirding his Presidency.
MCGINTYMolly Ball of The Atlantic. Nia-Malika Henderson of CNN and Ron Elving of NPR News. I'm Derek McGinty and this is The Diane Rehm Show. All right, we've got a few minutes left. Let's take a call or two more before we run out of time. George in Raleigh, North Carolina. You're on the air.
GEORGEHey, how are you doing? I listen to the show quite a bit. And I'm sorry to hear that Diane's going to be retiring. I think the caller back that called from Fort Bragg when the subject was racism and that Obama's had all these attacks based on his skin color. And I'm really sick and tired of it. It's like the Democrats are ready to play this racist card from the get go. And I feel like it was 2009 or so when they started talking about the Obamacare thing and Jimmy Carter made a comment and said, well any of the people that are against the Affordable Care Plan are racists.
GEORGEAnd, you know, he doesn’t know who I am, and I'm against it because, you know, basically, I think they all know it's not going to work because all the requirements are coming in this year, after Obama's had his two terms. And it seems like this is sort of a game plan. Any time that somebody disagrees with Obama, well, they must be a racist. I mean, let's go back to Senator Kennedy calling Robert Bork a racist when Ronald Reagan looked like he was going to, you know, lead the country.
GEORGEAnd he did do a good job of leading the country. And it just seems like to me that this whole racist thing is really capturing the country and that any time that there's a criticism...
MCGINTYSo let me ask you George, are you someone who thinks that we've become too politically correct, as some say, as Donald Trump has often suggested? That, you know, you should say what you think.
GEORGENo, that's not what I'm talk -- yeah, you should be able to say what you think without somebody calling you a name, such as a racist.
MCGINTYAll right. Let's talk about that.
GEORGEI mean, that's a playbook from the Democratic Party, and now it's becoming more so. And really, we should be getting away from the Civil War and I don't really think that we are that racist a country. I think it's a crutch to use as an excuse when somebody disagrees with you.
MCGINTYLet's talk about it.
ELVINGJimmy Carter, I don't believe, said that anyone opposed to the Affordable Care Act was a racist. But he did say some things that I think probably went a little bit than the White House likes to go in saying that some of the opposition, much of the opposition, I can't remember exactly how Jimmy Carter phrased it, but he did characterize a substantial portion of the resistance to Obama and his program as coming from people who had a problem with having a black man in the White House.
MCGINTYThe President didn't seem to mention race last night.
HENDERSONNo. I think he mentioned it, just in sort of this broad sweep of, you know, Americans black or white, gay or straight. I mean, he has, in many ways, seriously avoided race. You remember back in 2009, you had Eric Holder, who in some ways, was Obama's anger translator. He referred to the country as a nation of cowards and Obama, days later, sort of walked it back and said that he wouldn't put it that way. I do think he's talked more about race in his second term, but never really framing the opposition in any great detail as wrapped around his race.
MCGINTYBut the caller feels -- go ahead, Molly.
BALLWell, but he did mention political correctness. And here I think it's important to validate a little bit of what the caller is saying. We do see an upsurge of political correctness in this country, and we do see an upsurge of identity politics coming from the left. And a rejuvenated civil rights movement, a rejuvenated feminist movement and this increasingly censorious and accusational campus politics that are breaking out all over the country. And so, the response to that has been this backlash, a sort of countervailing force that doesn't like that accusational tone. And doesn't like that feeling of political correctness.
BALLAnd so Obama has spoken thoughtfully about this in the past. But his mention of political correctness last night was very dismissive. He said, you know, this isn't political correctness to say that we, you know, are open minded and yadda, yadda, yadda.
HENDERSONBut white identity politics has often been very much a part of politics in general, particularly on the right, if you think about the white hands ad from Jesse Helms. The Willie Horton ad. I mean, the entire kind of approach from the Republican Party in terms of the Southern Strategy.
MCGINTYAll right, Nia Henderson, of CNN, you're going to have the final word on that. Molly Ball of the Atlantic and Ron Elving of NPR News. It's been a pleasure, folks. Thank you so much for your time. I'm Derek McGinty, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I want to thank you for listening. We'll be back.
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