Obama’s State of the Union summarized the bulk of our domestic policy debate in two sentences

President Obama’s last State of the Union Address shied away from the usual list of policy proposals because, let’s face it, he isn’t signing any more major legislation. The President did, however, use the opportunity to unload on some of his lingering frustrations with the state of American politics, doing what he could to set the terms of debate for the election season ahead.

And he didn’t disappoint.

While Obama’s speech served as a defense of some of his most consequential achievements (Obamacare, the Iran Deal, TPP) and included familiar calls for Republicans to acknowledge that facts are useful things and get on board with addressing climate change, along with science and technology more generally:

President Obama's last State of the Union, via YouTube

President Obama’s last State of the Union, via YouTube

Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.

However, throughout much of Obama’s speech, it was clear that he had a score to settle with Republicans both in and out of Congress who have used race — both Obama’s and others’ — to avoid having to address structural weaknesses in our economy and our democracy. There’s a reason why his speech included more references to voting rights than all of the presidential debates both parties have held, combined.

For a long time, Obama has been unable to tackle this kind of racial resentment head-on, and he was still limited to a certain extent (he passed on a clear opportunity to say “black lives matter” toward the end of the speech, opting instead for “justice matters”), but the rise of Donald Trump and the success of his explicitly racist appeal to our country’s right wing gave Obama the pretext he needed to finally say what’s been on his mind.

Like this:

Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns.

Those two sentences cover the core of the current domestic policy debate between liberals and conservatives: The economy is in okay-but-not-fantastic shape, and someone is to blame. Liberals explicitly point to Wall Street speculation and corporate greed, which when they aren’t sending the country into a catastrophic death spiral are still exploiting labor by slashing wages, cutting hours and corrupting the very concept of economic security. For their part, conservatives argue that the corporate class is just fine as it is — “job creators” aren’t the problem — instead opting to blame irresponsible (black and brown) “takers” by dog whistling about personal responsibility, welfare, deficits and borders.

Donald Trump’s the outlier here only in that he doesn’t whistle. Obama’s defense of immigrants was widely perceived as a jab at Trump — and in some respects, it was — but the line, like Trump, spoke to an ugly sentiment in American politics that has been lingering for decades. Basically ever since conservatives realized they couldn’t say n***er in public anymore:

As I wrote on Monday, replacing class tensions with cultural anxieties — blaming values and identities for what are at their core material concerns — lies at the core of conservatives’ appeal to white working class voters. The economy didn’t crash because bankers on Wall Street were making a killing gambling with other people’s money on fantastical assumptions about continued home price growth, they say. The economy crashed because the government foisted homeownership on irresponsible black people who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — maintain a steady mortgage. Wages aren’t down because labor isn’t organized to leverage its power against the owning class, they say. Wages are down because brown people are takin’ yer jerbs.

If Democrats are able to forcefully call out this for the ugly distraction that it is, while presenting a credible, material alternative, they have a chance with these voters, too:

Democrats can make inroads with these voters by prioritizing material, economic gains for all ahead of (not instead of) cultural progress. Trump is allowed to violate traditional Republican orthodoxies — supporting universal health care, for instance — because his core voters never held those orthodoxies to begin with. They just want “their country” back. That can mean white picket fences, social license to beat up gay people and women relegated to the kitchen, but it could also mean economic security and a middle-class lifestyle. Trump offers the former; progressives like Bernie Sanders — who bother to point out that, screw you, grotesquely rich guys really are the problem a lot of time — offer the latter.

“Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough” is the one-sentence preview of an economic debate that the eventual Democratic nominee will be forced to have with the eventual Republican nominee. Even and perhaps especially if that nominee is someone other than Donald Trump. On issues including economic inequality, taxation, regulation, spending and, obviously, immigration, one half of our political class consistently and emphatically casts black and brown people as villains and rich (white) people as saviors.

Let’s hope our nominee is as ready to tackle those claims head-on as Obama was last night.

Watch the full speech here:


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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