Obama's final State of the Union shares hope for the future
Nearing the end of his time in office, President Barack Obama urged Americans Tuesday night to rekindle their belief in the promise of change that first carried him to the White House, declaring that the country must not allow election-year fear and division to take hold.
“The future we want,” he insisted, “is within our reach.” But opportunity and security for American families “will only happen if we work together … if we fix our politics,” he added.
The nation’s goals must include “a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids,” he said in his final State of the Union address.
At the heart of Obama’s address to lawmakers and a prime-time television audience was an implicit call to keep a Democrat in the White House for a third straight term. Sharply, and at times sarcastically, he struck back at rivals who have challenged his economic and national security stewardship, calling it all “political hot air.”
In a swipe at some Republican presidential candidates, he warned against “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.”
His words were unexpectedly echoed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was selected to give the Republican response to Obama’s address. Underscoring how the heated campaign rhetoric about immigrants and minorities from GOP front-runner Donald Trump in particular has unnerved some Republican leaders, Haley called on Americans to resist the temptation “to follow the siren call of the angriest voices.”
Seeking to shape his own legacy, Obama ticked through a retrospective of his domestic and foreign policy actions in office, including helping lead the economy back from the brink of depression, taking aggressive action on climate change and ending a Cold War freeze with Cuba.
He vowed a robust campaign to “take out” the Islamic State group, but chastised Republicans for “over the top claims” about the extremist group’s power.
“Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger and must be stopped,” he said. “But they do not threaten our national security.”
Mindful of the scant prospect for major legislative action in an election year, Obama avoided the traditional litany of policy proposals. He did reiterate his call for working with Republicans on criminal justice reform and finalizing an Asia-Pacific trade pact, and he also vowed to keep pushing for action on politically fraught issues such as curbing gun violence and fixing the nation’s fractured immigration laws.
Yet Obama was eager to look beyond his own presidency, casting the actions he’s taken as a springboard for future economic progress and national security. His optimism was meant to draw a contrast with what the White House sees as doom-and-gloom scenarios peddled by the GOP.
“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth. Period,” he declared. “It’s not even close.”
In this speech, Obama seemed looser and more conversational than in past State of the Union addresses. At one point, he ad-libbed an offer to give the presidential candidates in the audience tips on winning Iowa — where, indeed, many of the candidates — who normally would have been in the audience — already were. And he returned to the topic of gasoline prices — the subject of many past Republican attacks — with a line that noted how low they’d gone.
“Under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad,” Obama said.
Here are five important takeaways from Obama’s speech:
Reports that Iran was holding 10 American service members and two U.S. Navy boats threatened to cloud Obama’s speech and his contention that his nuclear weapons deal with Tehran stands to make the world a safer place. Obama didn’t mention the incident, but aides said earlier that the U.S. was “working to resolve the situation” and was hopeful that the sailors would soon be released.
Republicans have been critical of Obama’s foreign policy: Despite a nearly 18-month campaign of airstrikes and advisers, the U.S. has yet to contain the Islamic State.
Obama reiterated his call for Congress to officially authorize bombings in Iraq and Syria, but some Republicans say they believe that could tie the hands of the next president.
The state of Obama
Obama spent much of the speech reciting what he said were his accomplishments improving the quality of life for Americans at home and boosting the United States’ standing around the globe.
He touted his signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, as well as the resurgence in the economy after the recession, a global climate change agreement, a nuclear deal with Iran and easing of relations with Cuba.
And he didn’t shy away from speaking about the controversial actions he took on his own — on immigration and gun control — when Congress failed to act as he wanted.
In a departure, several guests in first lady Michelle Obama’s box at the address did not represent policy proposals, but rather sought to “personify Obama’s time in office.”
Obama did not mention any specific candidate for president by name. This speech was not designed to help his chosen successor, but rather give his party a platform from which to run.
Obama sought to convey a sense of optimism and draw a contrast with what his advisers say is a tone of “doom and gloom” emanating from the Republican candidates seeking to replace him in the White House.
While the Republicans on the trail have depicted his presidency as a failure that has made the U.S. less safe, Obama pitched his agenda as a success, arguing that the U.S. economy is on the rebound, graduation rates are up and more Americans have health care insurance. He said America’s standing in the world is improved and he celebrated Americans he has met as he traveled.
But Americans remain overwhelmingly unconvinced that the U.S. is heading in the right direction. Less than a quarter of Americans said they’re satisfied with the way things are going, according to a recent Gallup poll of 1,012 adults.
Obama tried to shake off a sense of lame duck status, insisting that compromise in gridlocked Washington is possible. In recent weeks, he and Congress agreed on a massive spending bill and Obama held out hope they could find common ground on his ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, criminal justice reform and efforts to tackle the heroin epidemic ravaging many communities.
“Who knows, we might surprise the cynics again,” Obama said.
Last chance for promises
Each year, advocacy groups bombard the White House with proposals they hope the president will mention in his State of the Union address. It took on added significance this time, since it was Obama’s last chance to act on a flurry of campaign promises.
He heard from those wanting to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rewrite the nation’s immigration laws and remove unaccountable money from politics. Even those who said he promised to implement a federal mandate to label genetically modified food, called for him to act.
But Obama left many of those groups disappointed as his speech was less a traditional State of the Union and more a speech about his vision for the nation.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram Washington Bureau, The Associated Press and The Washington Post.
Texas congressional delegation response
“I do not share the president’s optimism. The state of our nation is grim.” Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin
“More empty rhetoric and false promises … #POTUS says he wants to cut through red tape when his Admin. has imposed $73 billion of regulatory burdens on American families & businesses.” Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, via Twitter
“As House Republicans work towards actionable change for the betterment of America — including passing legislation to drive higher quality health care options and access to care, while shrinking the nation’s deficit — the fact that this president can only advance his agenda through executive actions shows how isolated his stances have become and how increasingly frustrated Americans are becoming with his leadership approach.” Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville
“@POTUS recognizes that our growing economy should work better for everybody, that is the #AmericanDream.” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, via Twitter
“Gloria (Fuentes) represents that the American Dream remains alive and well for those seeking a better life for their families. Her story exemplifies that with the right support and access to resources women and immigrant entrepreneurs can both follow their passion and provide for their families.” Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said of his guest for the speech, the owner and founder of Gloria’s Restaurant in Oak Cliff
“Unfortunately @POTUS focuses more on defeating global warming than defeating #ISIS. His priorities are wrong.” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin
“Admin’s gone rogue w/its liberal #climatechange agenda. Its impossible standards hurt US energy & jobs.” Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, via Twitter
Staff writer John Gravois