Ten U.S. Sailors, Two Navy Boats, and Iran

President Obama went before Congress one last time, to offer a plea for civic unity—and some sharp jabs at Republican presidential candidates.

President Obama and his aides promised that this year’s State of the Union address would be different, and he delivered on that promise. It was a somewhat unusual speech: Surprisingly devoted to rebutting Republican candidates for president, unusually loose and humorous, and elsewhere strikingly cerebral, passing up the tear-jerking climaxes of past addresses for a wonky and cerebral—though no less heartfelt—plea for civics and a better politics.

The goal of the speech, aides said in previews, would be for Obama to begin to frame his own legacy for the historians. He would eschew the standard litany of policy ideas in favor of a broader look at the future. That’s what he did.

Early on, the president articulated the progressive view of the world. “America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights,” he said. “Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears.” But he added, “Such progress is not inevitable. It is the result of choices we make together.” That’s a clear-eyed view of history for a leader who has often fallen into the trap of portraying history as an inexorable march toward human perfection.