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Opinion: Obama's missed opportunity

In his speech, President Barack Obama wanted to draft a plan for the US' future and ensure his presidency went down in history. However, expectations were dashed, says DW's Gero Schliess

Seriously Americans! The state of your nation isn't actually all that bad. Look around, at home and abroad. Your president really hasn't done a bad job!

That's what I would have liked to have told the millions of citizens who sat before their televisions watching Obama's last State of the Union. Going by the polls, the majority opinion about the president is dominated by skepticism and dissatisfaction. Yet the facts speak another language.

Putting aside the election campaign turmoil and the notorious Washington standoffs, there is a positive picture in many parts of the country: The economy is growing, and accordingly the number of jobs. By legalizing same-sex marriage, the US has showed socio-political courage and left supposedly progressive countries, such as Germany, well behind. This time, in contrast to previous years, Obama managed to wrestle a reasonable budget from the Republicans before a shutdown. Moreover, there has been success in foreign policy too, such as the overdue rapprochement with Cuba and a groundbreaking climate deal in Paris that gives hope for a slowing down of climate change for the first time. The nuclear deal with Iran is also a success, even if it has not led to a completely tension-free relationship between the two countries.

Big political plans and magic moments

Obama spent a lot of time justifying his politics in his speech. However, I would have expected more from this last State of the Union address: Big political plans and magic moments with which the president would take Americans into a future where he is no longer in office. In contrast to what the White House had announced, what came was once again the traditional "shopping list" of different political projects. The only difference in comparison to previous years was that the list was not limited to the coming year in office but reached far into the future.

One year before leaving office, Obama missed a unique opportunity to give his presidency an overarching significance, a long hoped-for thread, in front of a huge audience and within a historic context. I have to say, unfortunately, that it wasn't a great speech. Indeed, it was a disappointing speech.

Maybe Obama alone is not to blame. The circumstances aren't quite right. Obama took office with great goals. He had no lack of ambition. He wanted to redress the relationship with the Arab World and Russia and he wanted to reconcile his war-weary country with itself and build new foundations.

But for seven years in office much of his attention was absorbed by crisis management and creating transitions. He and his country were often pushed to the limit.

No evidence of a change in mentality

It's no accident that there has been plenty of talk about a world power in retreat during Obama's time in office. The US's impotence can be felt in the fight against the so-called "Islamic State." The images of beheaded hostages and attacks such as those in Paris and San Bernadino have raised the fear of terror among Americans to unheard levels. This is a surprising change in mentality, which Obama also addressed in his speech. But he did so only with his professorial and rational agenda, to which many now turn a deaf ear.

Obama hinted that a good part of this fear was due to Donald Trump's electioneering demagogy. The side blows to Trump's attacks on Muslims could not be missed.

The radicalization of the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates reflects the destructiveness of a longstanding political blockade. Obama's insistent appeal to find a way back to rational and constructive debate is at the same time an admittance of failure; for this was a central promise of his first election campaign. The president confessed his lack of success openly. This was one of the few strong moments of his speech.

Heartfelt themes

The fact that Obama once again called for a tightening of weapons laws, immigration reform and the closure of Guantanamo does not indicate that he still believes these can be realized.

By mentioning these blocked core projects, Obama is getting involved in the current election campaign. His view goes beyond next year. He also wants to decide on who succeeds him in the White House and what direction his country will take, as this will also decide what remains of his presidency. Therefore, Obama tried to counter the Republican presidential candidates' negative imagery with a positive picture of the US. Over and over again, he used a word from his first presidential campaign - change. One of the tragedies of this presidency is that in the best-case scenario, it might only be a Democratic successor who is finally able to bring about this much talked about change in future. Obama himself will go down in history only as a transitional president.

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