President Clinton’s State of the Union address in 2000 was both a celebration of his achievements and a laundry list of proposals he still wanted Congress to pass or Al Gore to use in the race to succeed him. President Obama doesn’t want much from Congress–he’s willing to govern without this one–and was apparently not especially interested in using proposals to make the case for electing a successor who would continue his work. He did some of that, to be sure, but not a lot: He didn’t even spend much time on gun control, which surprised me. Mostly he talked instead about his alleged successes (not including, interestingly, the Iran deal). The difference, of course, is that Clinton’s successes were considered to be such at the time, and not just by committed liberals. The same is not true of Obama’s record. More than half the people dislike Obamacare, are dissatisfied with the economy, disapprove of his foreign policy, and want a new direction in Washington, D.C. And so the picture of the country he conjured–where the health-care law is working well, the economy is doing great even if people have some anxieties, the administration is leading a path to peace in Syria, and so on–was not one that most Americans would recognize. And this gap between Obama and the public weakened the minor theme of the speech, namely the awfulness of Donald Trump. Obama argued against him, but could not do justice to the public mood that gave rise to him.
The choice to spend so much time summing up his record and so little either calling for anything new or even framing the election choice in November had another consequence: The speech, given with more than a year of his presidency left, had an oddly valedictory quality.