WASHINGTON — Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned by name, but both President Obama and the Republican Party’s chosen face on State of the Union night, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, offered dire warnings about what could happen to America if he isn’t stopped.
Obama’s address was divided into “four questions” about the future of America. The most important one, White House communications director Jen Psaki said before the speech, was the section on the political discourse in America. Though Psaki and other aides stressed that the speech was not about any specific politician or even focused on the raging presidential race at all, the theme mentioned over and over was “optimism.”
“The president believes this is the greatest country on earth,” said Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser.
The subtext was not subtle. And on Tuesday night, Obama warned that the continuing frustration in the country is letting rhetoric like Trump’s ascend.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
In a speech mostly focused on a big picture take on America and the Obama years, the president defended Muslims against Trump-style criticism.
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong,” Obama said in the prepared version of the speech sent to reporters. “It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
Haley’s Republican remarks cast a similar tone, defending immigration using her personal story as a first generation Indian American. Immigration has defined the Trump campaign from the start of his campaign through his recent call to deny any Muslim entry to the United States.
“Immigrants have been coming to our shores for generations to live the dream that is America,” she said. “Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
Washington’s leaders, for the most part, have steered clear of Trump. As the New York businessman has risen in the polls, Republican leaders in Congress have given him a wide berth, preferring to focus on governing. The White House, eager to remain the center of attention even as the campaign season gets louder and louder, has by and large avoided daily battles with Trump (with some notable exceptions).
But on Tuesday, surrounded by the full pomp and circumstance of the American political establishment, the focus was on Trump.