President Barack Obama took the biggest stage in politics Tuesday night aiming to calm a fearful nation and offer realistic ways to fix the country’s worsening politics. In his final State of the Union address, Obama acknowledged that partisanship has worsened during his presidency and accepted a share of blame — but said correctly that goodwill and leadership alone cannot repair the situation. It will take systemic reform, he said, to change the tone and substance of American governance.

“We’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he declared; gerrymandering makes Congress less responsive to the will of the majority of Americans. Obama insisted that Congress should find ways to restrict the untoward influence of money in politics. And he said it should be easier for Americans to vote.

His recommendations are apt in a campaign season veering toward disaster. Mistrust of institutions, pessimism about the future, fear of terrorism, and resentment of economic inequality have voters considering handing the government to bloviators who offer simplistic and often offensive “solutions.” Obama sought to combat the nation’s discontent rather than use it for political advantage. “All the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air,” he declared.

The nation has traveled a long way since the economic calamity of 2008 and 2009. Americans in many ways live better than they ever have – and certainly better than most people around the world. The facts do not suggest that the country is nearing collapse or self-destruction, as the rhetoric on the campaign trail so often implies. And even for very real problems, populist outbursts — bashing immigrants, the Federal Reserve, China and other easy targets – will not help.

Obama pushed back against bigotry in the GOP campaign — and fear-mongering in his own party. “We forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open markets, and protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia,” he said of the trade agreement many Democrats oppose, explaining that it will open foreign markets to U.S. goods. He spoke of welcoming the opportunities that a changing economy offers rather than nursing nostalgia for the economy of the past.

Obama also sought to offer reassurance on threats from abroad, saying, correctly, that the Islamic State does not pose an existential threat to the United States. He sketched a way to manage failed states and a turbulent Middle East by “mobilizing the world to work with us and making sure other countries pull their own weight.”

But he didn’t acknowledge that that strategy has left Syria and Iraq in chaos and created a power vacuum that has been filled by Iran and Russia. Obama claimed credit for forging a nuclear deal with Iran and new relations with Cuba but did not mention Cuba’s subsequent crackdown on dissidents or Iran’s provocations, including the detention Tuesday of two American vessels and their crews.

The United States faces serious problems. But overstating them only contributes to the likelihood of continuing Washington dysfunction or, worse, electing a demagogue who really would bring disaster. Obama was right to make that case.

Editorial by The Washington Post


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