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Gary Younge
Hope and change are all but gone. Obama's got nothing to lose any more

“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose,” wrote James Baldwin. “You do not need 10 such men, only one will do.”

Barack Obama had nothing to lose on Tuesday. It was his final State of the Union address, the last major set piece of presidential theatre for which he would command centre stage. No more presidential elections, midterms or protracted battles with the Republican Congress. The rest of the United States is already looking over his shoulder to watch his successors slug it out.

For the first time in that role, Obama could speak over the heads of his immediate audience – Congress and the American people – to address a nation, but also his legacy.

There were brief moments when he sounded like Obama the community organiser from Chicago’s south side, speaking up there behind the dais in Washington one last time. He framed his message in terms of the powerless and the powerful, flipping the script on who, exactly, bears responsibility for hard times:

Food stamp recipients did not 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. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.

But, characteristically, Obama was not dangerous.

He was thoughtful – at times, ponderously so. He picked his enemies carefully, and with precious little subtlety. The balanced speech had enough elements of rhetoric around equality and uplift to be worthy of a liberal president, combined with enough braggadocio about American military supremacy to be worthy of the United States commander-in-chief. He described the kinds of regular people he had helped and named the mean foreign people he had killed. “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth,” he said. “Period.”

Obama had nothing to lose but his reputation as a careful, cautious, consensual presence in a fractious, reckless, divided political class. And he wasn’t going to give that up easily.

Republicans in general – and Donald Trump in particular – provided foils for this president’s final calls for unity and cohesion, if not exactly hope and change. His conservative opposition have thrived for so long on fear and fiction, it was possible for Obama to appear simultaneously above the fray while chastising Republicans for languishing in a rhetorical gutter. “Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it,” he said, knowing full well that so many sane people stand firm on the evidence while Republicans flounder in half-baked theology.

“When politicians insult Muslims,” he said, knowing that for every person out there who loves Trump, several more detest him, “that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.”

You only had to look over Obama’s left shoulder at the poker face of the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, to see that this president’s appeals to common citizenship could barely make it out of the conservative-dominated chamber. They wouldn’t clap or stand for love (not gay love, anyway), or peace or economic recovery, nor healthcare or optimism.

If the state of the union is strong, nobody told the Republicans.

But for all of Obama’s swagger, there were moments that revealed his weakness all the same. If American politics are broken after seven years with him at the helm, then that is in no small part, as the man himself pointed out, because he has been unable to fix them. If Guantánamo is still open, as the progressive president lamented, it’s because he was unable to close it. And if he’s still explaining the benefits of Obamacare six years later, then something has gone seriously awry.

“There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide,” he said.

When you’ve got regrets like that, you’ve got nothing to lose. Here was a president who was not dangerous, with a speech that was not memorable, that created no new enemies nor made any new friends.

And yet Obama made history because Obama’s presence itself is historical. There went the last State of the Union speech by America’s first black president. For that reason alone, it’s not obvious when, exactly, we may hear another one quite like it.

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