In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama was widely expected to talk less about specific plans and more about broad goals for the future — projects that will continue long after he's left office. It turns out that was true almost to a fault. The address downplayed the problems we're still facing in favor of lots of hope and relatively little concrete change, touching on cancer research, a better social safety net, and fixing global warming. The present is bright, Obama promised, and the future will be moderately more bright.
Obama's presidency has been a mixed bag for technology policy, from a continued stalemate over cybersecurity and encryption to a robust promotion of net neutrality. The same was true for his State of the Union address. The speech alluded to having "protected an open internet," but it also asked Congress to pass the far more controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose intellectual property rules could threaten that same openness.
We got a much more nebulous discussion of what lies ahead, including the way that new technology is changing how we work and live. "Today, technology doesn't just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated," said Obama. "Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and face tougher competition." Obama has talked up emerging industries like 3D printing in previous addresses, but here, progress was painted in the absolute broadest and most recognizable strokes.
Climate change deniers will be 'pretty lonely' in the years to come
His answers for adapting to the economy were similarly familiar. For the young, offer "hands-on computer science and math classes" that will prepare students for jobs, plus two years of free community college for "every responsible student." For everyone else, offer more retraining for new jobs, plus wage insurance that will bridge the gap for workers who take a dramatic pay cut upon getting a new job. It sidestepped discussing the specific anxieties that have cropped up over everything from the "sharing economy" to the future of college. Similarly, Joe Biden's ambitious cancer research initiative got a new boost with a broad promise to "make America the country that cures cancer once and for all." But there wasn't much concrete detail on what this includes.
Maybe the biggest threat on the horizon here was climate change. Obama's tone was confident: anyone who wants to deny climate change will be "pretty lonely," and America intends to fight it with more forms of clean energy and stricter regulation for dirty ones. Or as Obama put it, "rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future." He pointed to what is legitimately a major win: a pact signed by 200 countries a month before his address. At the same time, it will take significant work to fight things like the rising sea levels that threaten to flood cities like Miami within the century.
It's not surprising that the more fraught areas of American policy, like the gun control debate, got barely a mention in the 2016 State of the Union. It was the broadly optimistic baseline that this year's presidential election will build on, including a warning against "voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don't look like us." Outside those voices, Americans are "clear-eyed, big-hearted, optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
"That's what makes me so hopeful about our future," concluded the address. "Because of you. I believe in you."