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What Minnesota’s representatives thought of Obama’s final State of the Union

In a 58-minute speech, Obama gave what several lawmakers described as a valediction.

As much as he recapped the accomplishments — and even the regrets — of his presidency, he looked ahead to 2016 and beyond, talking about what needed to get done.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON — At least one important element of the Barack Obama era has come to an end: on Tuesday night, the president delivered his eighth and final State of the Union address. It may have been the final time that Obama, whose rise to the White House was largely launched by his gifts as an orator, gives a speech in primetime to the American people.

In a 58-minute speech, Obama gave what several lawmakers described as a valediction: as much as he recapped the accomplishments — and even the regrets — of his presidency, he looked ahead to 2016 and beyond, talking about what needed to get done.

For members of the Minnesota congressional delegation — seven of whom have been in office for the entirety of the Obama administration — the president’s final State of the Union was an opportunity to reflect on the presidency now drawing to a close.

‘A great valedictory’

For Minnesota’s Democrats, at least, the answer was clear: this final Obama State of the Union was among his best — if not his strongest address as president. “I thought the president’s speech was phenomenal. It was among the best I’ve ever heard,” said 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison. In particular, Ellison appreciated Obama’s description of his administration’s progressive policy achievements — as well as his pointed rebuttal to anti-Muslim rhetoric. “He really pushed back against the phenomenon that Trump exemplifies,” Ellison said. “I thought it was awesome.”

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Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan echoed Ellison’s enthusiasm, calling the address inspiring. “Parts of it were sobering and important, reminding us who we are and where we come from, and what it means to us for the future,” Nolan said. “In many respects it was a farewell,” he added, “and he’s done well considering what he inherited.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who described the feeling of this year’s address as noticeably different, was in agreement. “I thought it was very well done. It was beautiful,” she said. Referencing one of the speech’s frankest moments, she said, “I just think the ending… where he admitted his hope had been to get through some of this partisan crap and he actually thought he could do it, and then he said he hadn’t been able to do it… I think you can’t get much more honest than that.”

The address especially hit home for Sen. Al Franken, who welcomed a grandchild the morning of the State of the Union. “It was a very emotional speech for me. Having a grandson born today, he was talking about the future,” he said. “I felt that the things he was talking about are things that will affect my grandson for the rest of his life. I thought it was a great valedictory.”

First District Rep. Tim Walz, who has seen all of Obama’s annual addresses, said this speech called back to the beginning of his “hope and change” campaign in 2008. “This went back to the beginning. It’s what appealed to so many people, the hope and promise of a different politics, not a specific policy but the idea that we can do better.” For Walz, the speech struck the right tone, saying it was more conciliatory than his critics give him credit for.

Republicans unimpressed

That wasn’t quite the view of Minnesota’s Republicans. While they mostly acknowledged Obama was justified to use his last State of the Union to look back, they were critical of his speech, along with the legacy he will leave behind — which the Democrats took for granted as overwhelmingly positive.

Third District Rep. Erik Paulsen took issue, for example, with Obama’s laundry list of economic talking points centered around getting the U.S. out of the recession. “There’s no doubt it’s the worst economic recovery after a recession in the history of the country,” Paulsen said. “We should be way above average. We’re not even close to the average.”

Paulsen said he appreciated Obama mentioning places where the parties could work together — on prescription drugs, cutting regulations — but added, “I appreciate where he’s coming from, thinking after seven years, what’s my legacy going to be. I don’t think the health care legacy is going to be a good legacy in the end, because premiums keep going up and there’s a lot more work we’re gonna have to do on that issue.”

In a statement, Second District Rep. John Kline — whose new K-12 education law got a special mention from the president — said that Obama was “more concerned with building his legacy than building a better future for our country… [he] wants us to accept the failed status quo as the new normal.”

For Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer, the newest member of the Minnesota delegation, Obama’s final address didn’t quite add up. “To me, it was a little flat. It wasn’t too inspiring, though it was loaded with flowery rhetoric… Just not a lot of substance,” he said.

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The freshman Republican was particularly critical of Obama’s defense of his administration’s foreign policy. “Frankly, there is no foreign policy. It’s been incremental, it’s been reactionary, and fragmented,” he said. “It was very difficult to hear him talk about unrest in the world that has literally started and germinated over the last seven years is going to continue for decades. You’d hope he’d have a strategy.” Obama did urge Congress to grant him a new authorization of military force to fight ISIS. Emmer prefers a declaration of war, but says lawmakers should give the president the authority he needs.

Ultimately, Emmer said that last year’s address, which was heavier on policy specifics, was preferable, even if he didn’t agree with much of it. This year’s, he said, “doesn’t give us a lot to go on.”