The nation heard two different assessments this week of Barack Obama's presidency, yet both offer a teachable moment for the 2016 campaign. In his final State of the Union address, Obama hit the high points of his seven years in office and talked of the way forward on issues such as immigration, free trade and climate change. In the official Republican response, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley spoke of lingering fears about terrorism and the economy. But in tone and substance, she also offered more thoughtful views and a brighter outlook than the divisive, grim appeals likely to come again tonight in another Republican presidential debate.
With only months remaining in office, the president acknowledged the obvious Tuesday by laying out his achievements rather than presenting Congress with any far-reaching proposals in this election year. The president set the table for Democrats by highlighting the nation's recovery from a devastating recession, the security gains made against al-Qaida and the improved quality of life for millions made possible by his landmark health care law.
In her response, Haley pointed to the anxiety in America over debt, sluggish wages and racial unrest. But she pivoted quickly to call out the gridlock in Washington, and she blamed Republicans and Democrats alike for eroding the public's trust. The daughter of Indian parents underscored the contributions that immigrants have made and called for an end to the mean-spirited rhetoric. It was an impressive performance from a rising Republican governor and a message to Republican presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, who are fanning fears about national security and immigrants. And Haley predictably was quickly criticized by some of the most conservative commentators.
Obama and Haley are hardly on the same page on policy. But they underscored that principles and pluralism can coexist within a functioning political system. A Democratic president who campaigned on hope and change conceded on Tuesday that there obviously is much work to do. A Republican South Carolina governor who led a bitter fight last year to remove the Confederate flag from the state Capitol after a shooting at a black church deplored the "angriest voices" smothering the national conversation. It was a high point for both parties that contrasted starkly with the sharp-edged messages from too many Republican presidential candidates.
While Obama laid out a modest short-term agenda where the two parties might agree, he predicted larger battles over energy, immigration and other issues. Haley echoed that view, saying Republicans would stand for new limits on spending and taxes, changes in health care and curbs in government authority over business and education. But there was a sense of accountability and responsible leadership in their messages that is missing from the Republican presidential campaign.
Tonight's debate is an opportunity for the candidates to offer a more serious, forward-looking vision that draws on this nation's diversity as a strength, not a weakness or a threat. The nation faces tough challenges, and both political parties have their own prescriptions. But true public servants don't divide their country or spread fear. That was the lesson from America's first black president and the nation's youngest governor, the first Indian-American woman to hold public office in South Carolina.