President Obama launched his final year in office with a valedictory State of the Union address Tuesday night that painted a portrait of a prosperous and secure America but warned of peril ahead if the country can’t break the political logjam in Washington.
His final rendition of the annual speech focused more on aspirational themes than on ambitious new plans, and contained only a handful of requests to Congress. At just under an hour, it was among the shortest of his seven State of the Union speeches.
In a rare admission of fault, Obama acknowledged he is not blameless for the hardened, hyperpartisan political atmosphere of his tenure in the White House.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said before a joint session of Congress.
But Obama peppered his speech with veiled zingers aimed at his critics — including lawmakers listening in the House chamber and the leading GOP candidates battling to succeed him — in one of his most edgy public addresses. His statements made clear he intends to add his voice to the 2016 presidential race.
Citing his push to make college education more affordable, for example, he noted that a good education isn’t enough in an economy undergoing profound change.
“After all, it’s not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber,” he told members of Congress, some of whom sat stonily.
“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction” and “political hot air,” Obama said.
“Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker,” he added. America is “the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.”
He called on Americans to reject politics that target people because of race or religion. “This isn’t a matter of political correctness,” he said.
When politicians insult Muslims, he added, “that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.”
He also fought back against arguments that his administration has underplayed the danger from Islamic State and other terrorist groups, contending that “over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands.”
“Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped,” he said. “But they do not threaten our national existence.”
He also took on his critics on the issue of climate change, citing the international agreement signed last month in Paris to combat the causes of global warming.
The Republicans’ appointed critic for the night, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, was just as cutting in the GOP response after Obama finished speaking.
“The president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words,” Haley said.
Obama gave credit to new House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), and said he welcomed “a serious discussion” with him about helping low-income workers.
Ryan sat behind Obama impassively, rising once or twice to applaud U.S. troops. Three months after Ryan rose to his new position, he still has not had the customary one-on-one welcome meeting at the White House.
Even if relations warm with the new speaker, Obama does not expect the Republican-led Congress to embrace his call for gun safety, immigration policy reform or a higher minimum wage. That will not stop him from pushing for those goals, advisors said.
Obama laid out his plans for building on his legacy in words that rang familiar after his seven years in office.
And how can we make sure that “our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?” he asked.
In response, he talked about preparing the workforce for the changing marketplace, and pushing for universal pre-kindergarten and college affordability while also safeguarding Social Security and Medicare. He pledged support for Vice President Joe Biden’s “moonshot” project to cure cancer.
On foreign policy, Obama implicitly rejected what his staff sees as a binary choice that his Republican critics offer between isolation from the global community and sending U.S. troops to occupy foreign countries.
He defended his policy of engagement with Iran, Cuba and China, and argued that it has advanced American interests around the world.
He urged Americans to welcome refugees from the Syrian civil war, and he called for expanding trade, starting with the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.
“Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right,” he said. “That’s strength. That’s leadership.”
“There is this doubling-down on a dark vision on the state of the American economy and the state of America’s leadership around the world that he believes is just not true,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor who helped shape the president’s speech, said earlier Tuesday. “The danger of that is if we make decisions based on those assumptions, they lead us to do the wrong things.”
The speech was noteworthy for the absence of policy details. Aides to the president say he is returning more to the tone of his 2008 campaign speeches, the ones that won the electorate to his side in the first place.
As he neared the end of his speech, Obama veered away from policy altogether, rising into a sermon-like oratory on the state of American politics.
He decried the practice of gerrymandering — the drawing of congressional district maps by dominant state political officials to favor their parties. Voters should pick their representatives “and not the other way around.”
Beyond that, Obama said, Americans have gotten out of practice of working out their differences.
Change will only happen, he said, “if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.”
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