Last April, with the race for president still far away, President Obama used his speech at the annual White House Correspondents Assn. dinner to poke fun at some likely Republican contenders, needling Jeb Bush’s efforts to court Latinos and Ted Cruz’s denial of climate change.
“And,” he added caustically, “Donald Trump is here. Still.”
Jumbo screens showed the billionaire businessman waving affably from a back table. But the idea of a Trump candidacy was the punch line, and the Washington media and political elites packed in the ballroom laughed in appreciation.
Obama no longer finds it funny. His final State of the Union address Tuesday night amounted to a vigorous — and frequently barbed — defense of his record and his legacy in the face of Trump’s unexpected rise to the top of the Republican nomination race.
Obama never mentioned Trump by name. Nor did South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was chosen by Republican Party leaders to respond to the president’s address.
But Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, warned her own party against following the sort of anti-immigration rhetoric that first propelled Trump to the top of GOP polls in South Carolina and other early-voting states in the presidential race.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” said Haley, who is frequently cited as a potential vice presidential candidate. “We must resist that temptation.”
“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference,” she added. “That is just not true.”
The comments suggest the deep unease Trump has inspired among leaders in both parties as the brash real estate mogul taps into Americans’ anxieties about the economy and national security.
Trump initially fired back only on Twitter. “The State Of The Union speech was one of the most boring, rambling and non-substantive I have heard in a long time,” he tweeted Wednesday.
Later, however, he spoke by phone to “Fox & Friends” to respond to Obama's assertion that politicians who insult Muslims are “just wrong” and diminish America in the eyes of the world.
Obama, Trump declared, is “living in fantasy land.” Whether the president likes him or not is “not very important,” he said.
He also slammed Haley as “very weak on illegal immigration,” and said she had asked him “for a hell of a lot of money” for her past political campaigns.
More important, Trump complained that Obama didn't use the words “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech. “He doesn’t want to use those terms. He doesn't want to talk about it.”
Actually, Obama devoted part of his speech to the battle against Islamic State, citing the nearly 10,000 airstrikes the U.S. and partner nations have launched against the group.
In comments clearly aimed at the GOP candidates, he warned against “over-the-top claims that this is World War III,” saying the extremist group does not “threaten our national existence.”
Obama also warned against those who would “push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world's largest religions,” using an acronym for Islamic State.
In his comments Wednesday, Trump also charged that Obama “doesn't want to talk about California, what happened there with the 14 people killed — viciously killed by the two radicalized people. He doesn't want to talk about what's going on in the world, the real facts.”
Four days after the Dec. 2 shooting in San Bernardino, Obama gave an address to the nation from the White House that focused specifically on the attack, the broader threat of terrorism and the government's efforts to keep the country safe.
Despite appearances, White House aides downplayed the notion Wednesday that Obama crafted his comments with Trump in mind.
They said it was consistent with the message he has delivered since he drew national attention as a speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Obama’s “fundamentally optimistic vision” both predates and offers a sharp contrast to Trump and other Republican hopefuls, said Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
The White House initially viewed Trump’s rise as a symptom of a rightward lurch in the Republican Party rather than a reflection of the national mood.
They now view him more warily as a threat to Obama’s accomplishments over the last seven years, and to his ability to protect them by electing a Democratic successor.
On Wednesday, Obama took his message to Omaha, which sits across the Missouri River from Iowa, which holds the first presidential nominating contest in less than three weeks.
After taking the stage to a thunderous ovation in Omaha’s Baxter Arena, Obama noted that the city’s airwaves are full of TV ads trying to reach Iowa voters.
“They’re kind of depressing,” he said, bemoaning the “doom” and “gloom” of the political ads.
Obama again condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail, and said he believes now more than ever that “we are all in this together.”
“That's what makes America great,” he said, an allusion — intended or not — to Trump's trademark campaign slogan.
Memoli reported from Omaha and Finnegan from Los Angeles.
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