"Who knows, we might surprise the cynics again." That was President Obama talking to Congress near the beginning of his final State of the Union address on Tuesday night. He was suggesting that he and the Republican-led Congress might get some stuff done in his final year, even with a big, loud presidential campaign raging in the background.
It doesn't really take a cynic to suspect Obama won't get much through Congress in 2016. But laying out a legislative wish list was explicitly not what Obama envisioned for his speech to Congress and the nation.
Instead, Obama looked to the future, laying out a list of four big questions America has to answer and then delivering a decidedly uncynical paean to American civic pride and responsibility. America is "clear-eyed, big hearted," Obama said, before declaring himself "optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That's what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That's why I stand here confident that the state of our union is strong."
Obama gave an optimistic speech, but not a blindly optimistic one. "As someone who begins every day with an intelligence briefing, I know this is a dangerous time," he said. America's economic progress isn't being shared equitably. And there was a big catch in his promise that America can overcome the obstacles of foreign enemies and disruptive technology, turn to its better angels: Americans must want to fix things, and work hard — together and individually — to make the U.S. and the world better places.
Progress "is the result of choices we make together," Obama said. "Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?"
You want bold optimism? "For the loved ones we've all lost, for the families that we can still save, let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all," Obama said, tapping Vice President Joe Biden to lead the charge. Researchers are improving cancer-fighting tools, but America has been pledging to cure cancer since at least the Reagan administration.
The speech was partly a response to the Republican presidential candidates and the dark portrait they paint of America and the world — there were thinly veiled jabs at Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), among others. "Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction," Obama said, adding later: "Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That's the story [ISIS] wants to tell; that's the kind of propaganda they use to recruit."
But Obama's biggest point was a return to the theme of his 2008 presidential election, and his breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic presidential convention: There is one America, and while Americans disagree on lots of issues, they agree on much more. "One of the few regrets of my presidency," Obama said Tuesday night, is "that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. 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."
He didn't complain about the strident, almost knee-jerk opposition he got from Republicans in Congress these last seven years, or the rank underbelly of noxious disdain he has faced from a slice of the electorate, but he hinted at them. Democracy "doesn't work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic," he said, and it "grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us."
Obama started out his tenure with a crippling global recession, a massive U.S. housing crisis, and a bizarre conspiracy theory about his birth certificate. He has had trouble winding down the two major wars he inherited, has been unable to close Guantanamo Bay, and was commander in chief when the Islamic State crashed into the massive political upheaval in the Middle East. He has been president during a seemingly endless and always heartbreaking string of mass shootings. There has been what seems like an unusual amount of ugliness in America in the past seven years.
And yet, Obama says he's optimistic about America, and he sounds like he means it.
That should make us at least question our own cynicism. Obama is right that America is strong, economically and militarily, the strongest in the world. And he (and his Republican detractors) are right that America can do better. But that's a choice.
Barack Obama can give a speech — even his Republican critics acknowledge that, even if they don't mean it as a compliment. (Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina who gave a similarly sunny GOP response to Obama's speech, said the president "spoke eloquently about grand things" and "is at his best when he does that.") Most likely, this State of the Union address will be like the ones that presidents have given for decades now — soaring, ambitious, quickly forgotten.
But Obama's four questions are ones America will have to face, regardless of who's is the White House or which party controls Congress. And maybe, just maybe, Obama is right and America is up to the task.
Not to be cynical about it, but here's a safe bet for the future: If one of the jeremiad-prone Republicans wins the White House this year, his first State of the Union address in 2017 will declare that America is strong and full of promise. And he probably won't be lying, even if nothing has changed.