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Foreign Policy

Obama’s Speech Highlights US Polarization

Feb 17 , 2016
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

On Jan. 12, President Obama recognized the changing situation of today’s world, listed achievements and outlined a better future to boost the US morale and strategic ambitions in his final State of the Union speech. It was divided into four major parts, namely a new economy for all, the spirit of innovation, U.S. leadership in the world and a politics of hope. [1]Among them, the last part was the most impressive, which actually highlighted the polarization of American politics.

In the political section Mr. Obama said, “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything”, but reach compromise for the common goals.[2] With this opportunity, the president once again called on the two parties in the Congress to abandon their differences and commit to cooperating in order to build a more positive and smooth political atmosphere. However, reaching that point is far away. Seen from the video, the president seemed to address a policy report to the Democrats, rather than deliver the State of the Union. From the beginning to the end, the Republicans seldom responded, generally keeping silent. During the speech, House Speaker Paul Ryan stood up and applauded only once, when Obama said, “Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”

Moreover, the parties reacted differently after the speech: the Democrats applauded, while the Republicans were disdainful. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton highly praised Obama with the words, “Seven years of progress. We need to build on it—not go backwards” on her Twitter.[3] Bernie Sanders, another Democratic presidential candidate, also tweeted: “Tonight’s speech was important. The president reminded us not to be afraid of change, but to wield it to improve the lives of all Americans.”[4] However, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump criticized Obama’s speech as “boring, tedious, simply can not bear to look.” Ted Cruz, another Republican presidential candidate, tweeted: “Tonight’s speech was less a State of the Union and more a state of denial.” [5]

There are at least two purposes of Obama’s final State of the Union: One was to state his achievements in domestic and foreign affairs in the past seven years as political legacies for his presidency. In other words, it was the right time for him to define and emphasize the “Obama doctrine”. The other purpose was to boost the Democratic presidential election campaign, for example, with his criticism of the leading Republican presidential candidate Trump’s words on Muslim immigrants. President Obama said: “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.” Naturally, in this regard, the Republican Party didn’t buy it. But it is not the whole reason for their reactions. Just imagine, last year when Obama made the State of the Union, the Republican’s performance was exactly the same.

Therefore, the essence it reflects is a deep and stereotyped partisan conflict. President Obama called for the two parties to work together to break the vicious cycle of political polarization when he won the presidential election in 2008. He said: “Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.”[6] However, a few years later, the president found the problem was not solved, but had become worse. In his speech, he also admitted: “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.” He correctly pointed out it was not his task or “any President’s alone.” But it is really a big challenge for the US. In the present era, the connectivity between politics and economy, and between internal and international affairs has reached an unprecedented state. The entanglement of partisan politics is not good for the US prosperity. As President Obama said, the better future of the United States can only be achieved through joint efforts and “rational, constructive debates”, while all these depended on “fix(ing) our politics”.

From this perspective, even though President Obama stressed the strong US economic growth, the unemployment rate falling to a new low record, the budget deficit reaching its lowest level since the crisis, having no peers with US military power and no rivals to US primacy, the polarizing domestic politics and other problems such as the shrinking middle class, the larger income gap, the expanding xenophobia (especially toward Muslims) and the increasing gun violence has tested the endurance of American leadership. President Obama repeatedly said claims of America’s decline were just a “fiction”, but he also understands that problems and challenges indeed exist and cannot be ignored. As a result, Obama’s final State of the Union put the focus on the American future, called on the next administration to follow the direction he set, that is, to reform the political, economic, social system domestically and build a strong network of allies and partners to address the potential threats internationally. Owing to the polarization of U.S. politics, there are many uncertainties about whether Obama’s expectations can be achieved.



[2] The White House, “Remarks of President Barack Obama – State of the Union Address As Delivered,” 13 January, 2016,


[4] Ben Wolfgang, “2016 Democrats lavish praise on Obama; Clinton fundraises off speech,” The Washington Times, January 12, 2016,

[5] “GOP Candidates React to Obama’s SOTU Address on Twitter,”

[6] “FULL TRANSCRIPT: Sen. Barack Obama’s Victory Speech,”

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