Editorial: Divided nation gets blame not balm

The Detroit News

President Barack Obama gave an accurate summary of the state of the Union in his final address to Congress. While declaring the union strong, he acknowledged its people are divided, fearful and frustrated.

The promise of Obama when he came into office seven years ago to be a uniter and an agent of positive change for the nation has not been met; his potential to be a transformational leader both at home and abroad has never been realized.

And yet the president seemed not to grasp his role in “breaking the bonds of trust” between the people and the government, casting the blame on a stubborn Congress and bombastic Republican presidential candidates.

Tuesday’s State of the Union address was absent major new initiatives, a recognition that in this last year of office it is unlikely he can muster the political support to move big ideas through Congress.

Instead, Obama revisited his first address, laying out a vision of a better America and world, delivered by leaders working together for the common good.

If that rang hollow, it is because the president himself abandoned that quest early on, choosing confrontational politics over conciliation, brinksmanship over compromise.

He entered office with the gift from voters of a friendly Congress. He used his mandate for constructive change to force through a hugely unpopular health care restructuring that cost him his Congressional majorities. As Obama said, “democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter...” On the Affordable Care Act, the voice of the average American was ignored.

And while decrying the rancor of today’s political debate and the divisiveness of partisan politics, few presidents have been so dismissive of Congress. He treated the legislative branch with disdain and condescension, believing he could move lawmakers through public shamings rather than by forging the trust he called for in his Tuesday address.

Congress is not blameless -- hardly. The ideologues in the Republican party have made life miserable for even their own leadership. But other presidents have faced hostile Congresses, and have managed to forge relationships.

Obama expressed little interest in building alliances. Instead, he defied the expressed will of Congress on issues ranging from gun control to environmental standards to immigration, using executive orders to put in place an agenda he could not enact by making a compelling case to lawmakers and the public.

It’s no wonder Americans have lost faith in the process of governing.

And while the president boasted of his economic track record, too many Americans have been left out of this mediocre recovery. Household incomes are stagnant, and workforce participation remains at historic lows. Obama blamed greedy and disloyal corporations, but his failure to address uncompetitive tax codes and his layering on of burdensome new taxes are the real culprits.

The content and tone of Tuesday’s address suggested a president who has moved into full legacy mode.

But one year remains on his tenure. It is not enough time to redeem the promise of his inaugural. But he can get some important things done, if he focuses on issues that already have bipartisan support.

One of those is the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which Obama mentioned in his address. The pact between the United States and 12 Pacific Rim countries would open more markets to more U.S. goods and services. It enjoys backing from both Republicans and Democrats, but not enough from either. The president should spend some political capital to get the deal passed.

Another item the president touched on was criminal justice reform. Again, there is support from members of both parties to change the way criminals are prosecuted and punished.

This last year should be about more than Obama lobbying for his legacy.