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Obama: 'The Future We (I) Want...Will Only Happen If We Fix Our Politics'

By Susan Jones | January 13, 2016 | 8:10am EST
President Barack Obama is greeted on the House floor on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, after giving his final State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Obama laid out his liberal vision for America Tuesday night, telling Americans that the state of the union is strong, but hinting it could be a whole lot stronger if everyone would just vote for people who agree with Obama's policies.

"The future we want — opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids — all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics," Obama said.

"And if we want better politics...we have to change the system," he added later. Changing the system means voting, the president said. Left unsaid -- voting for liberal Democrats, but that was implied.

So how would Obama "change the system"?

"We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections — and if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution.

"We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do." Obama did not explain what those reforms are, but he and other Democrats strenuously oppose having voters show identification before casting their ballots.

"But I can’t do these things on my own," Obama continued. "Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you...

"What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure.

"As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background (a swipe at Donald Trump).

"We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.

"So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day."

'A better politics,' 'Our better selves'

In the first part of his speech, Obama urged Americans to "reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion," a thinly veiled reference to Donald Trump's call to bar Muslim immigrants until the U.S. can figure out exactly who is coming here.

"A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything," Obama said later on. "This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

"But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens," said the man who has eroded Republicans' trust by making repeated end-runs around Congress on contentious issues such as immigration and guns.

"It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention (another swipe at conservatives in general and Trump in particular).

"Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now." (Although both parties have wealthy benefactors, the Republican Koch brothers repeatedly have been singled out for harsh criticism by Democrat leader Harry Reid on the Senate floor.)

"It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better," Obama admitted. "There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office. But my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task — or any president’s — alone." (In other words, the rancor and suspicion are not all his fault.)

"There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber who would like to see more cooperation, a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the demands of getting elected. I know; you’ve told me. And if we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves."

Obama indicated that when he leaves office next year, he'll return to community organizing on a grand scale:

"I'll be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love."

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