WASHINGTON — With an eye to securing his legacy — and helping his party’s chances to keep the White House this November — President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address to tout his administration’s record over the past seven years, while striking an optimistic tone about the nation’s future.
The president’s address on Jan. 12, while short on detailed new policy proposals, offered a hopeful vision of the country, where the Democratic president said the United States remains the most powerful nation on earth, still capable of great accomplishments such as curing cancer and caring for the weak and vulnerable in society, despite the nation’s polarized political culture. But the speech also communicated that a glaring gap remains between the president and the U.S. bishops on key moral issues related to human life and sexuality.
Still, Catholics took some positives from the hour-long speech, including the president’s quoting Pope Francis to condemn hatred and violence, while outlining his administration’s initiatives that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have supported, such as improving access to health care, pushing a green energy plan, taking steps toward immigration reform and addressing climate change.
“The speech was soaring and inspirational and actually did a good job trying to name that increasingly elusive thing which all Americans share in common with each other. I was moved several times,” said Charles Camosy, a moral theologian at Fordham University, who told the Register that Obama reminded many people of the early hopes they had for his presidency.
But while the speech resonated positively with observers such as Camosy, who serves as a board member of Democrats for Life, Obama did not address tensions his administration has had with the bishops and the Catholic community over issues of life, family and conscience rights, especially his signature health-care law’s mandate that employers provide contraception and abortifacient coverage in employee health insurance plans at no additional cost.
Highlighting those conflicts were the Little Sisters of the Poor, the religious order that is suing the Obama administration over its contraceptive mandate. Two members of the order attended the speech as guests of House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Also in attendance was Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for almost a week last September when she balked at issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court declared last June that state same-sex “marriage” bans are unconstitutional.
Obama announced his support for same-sex “marriage” in 2012 and said during this year’s State of the Union that the spirit of progress over the past seven years was “how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.”
The president’s call for Americans to stand up for others, “especially the weak, especially the vulnerable,” also struck pro-life leaders, who point out his unflagging support for legal abortion and Planned Parenthood, despite evidence that suggests the abortion provider traffics fetal body parts for profit.
“The poorest, the most vulnerable, the most at-risk population happens to live in the womb because it’s a war zone in this country, and he did not mention babies,” said Judie Brown, president of American Life League, a national Catholic pro-life organization.
Brown told the Register that Obama’s address was intentionally designed to avoid suggesting that he is interested in building a true culture of life.
“He has not changed his position any iota,” said Brown, who also described the president’s address as a “transparent political speech designed to advance Hillary Clinton’s possibility of being elected president.”
The Partisan Divide
Obama made several veiled criticisms of the Republican president candidates, especially Donald Trump, the outspoken controversial business leader who has staked out hardline positions on immigration that include calling for Muslims to be prohibited from entering the United States. The president dismissed the “political hot air” and added that insulting Muslims is not “telling it how it is,” but, rather, is wrong and betrays what the United States stands for.
Deal Hudson, publisher and editor of The Christian Review, told the Register that Obama’s remarks about regretting that the rancor between Republicans and Democrats has worsened during his tenure came across as hollow, given that Obama has “lashed out” at Christians and others who strongly disagree with his policies.
“I would score the address as one long whine-fest, basically,” said Hudson, who served as head of Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee during the George W. Bush presidency. “I was hoping he would try to seriously mend fences, but I don’t think it’s in him.”
Camosy said Obama expressed awareness of his failure to heal the partisan divide and noted that the president pledged to improve that in his final year in office. Camosy said he hopes people who listened to the address can get beyond the “outdated us vs. them” culture wars of the 1970s.
“This is especially important for Christians who have a tendency to make an idol of their own political party and, perhaps even more often, the defeat of the other political party,” Camosy said.
The Final Word
William O’Keefe, vice president of government relations and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, live-tweeted his observations during the president’s speech. O’Keefe told the Register that he liked much of what Obama said about foreign policy, including the nation’s successes in fighting Ebola in West Africa, the role failing states play in spreading hunger and poverty, and the humanitarian crises caused by the conflicts in Syria and the Middle East.
“Our foreign assistance, when done well, is an expression of our unconditional love to our brothers and sisters across the world,” said O’Keefe, who detected a touch of “faith language” in Obama’s closing statements: that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
However, the Democratic Party’s continued strong support for abortion — starkly evident throughout Obama’s administration, although not referenced directly in his final State of the Union speech — will likely continue to have the final word with many faithful Catholics when they head to the polls to choose his successor.
Discussing political matters in a Jan. 11 interview with Newsmax, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington stressed that the right to life, and the lack of respect for human life that legal abortion has engendered in America, is the pre-eminent concern in the 2016 presidential election.
Summed up Cardinal Wuerl, “It remains the fundamental basic issue.”
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.
Register staff contributed
to this report.