Obama Urges Americans to Expunge Cynicism, Fear From Politics

  • President says he regrets deepened U.S. political divide
  • South Carolina's GOP governor faults Obama's economic record

Obama's 2016 State of the Union in Three Minutes

President Barack Obama implored Americans to turn away from cynicism and fear, in a final State of the Union address that at times represented a rebuke of the bitter campaign to succeed him. 

“The future we want -- opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids -- all that is within our reach,” Obama said. “But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

Obama and his aides viewed Tuesday’s State of the Union address as perhaps the last, best chance to burnish his legacy before a national audience -- and convince Americans they should vote to keep a Democrat in the White House. His speech came in the shadow of events in the Persian Gulf, where Iranian forces captured and detained 10 U.S. sailors earlier on Tuesday, prompting renewed Republican criticism of Obama’s foreign policy.

Obama made no mention of the incident. Administration officials said they expected the imminent release of the sailors.

Non-Traditional Speech

The White House promised a non-traditional speech, and Obama delivered an address he said was designed to illustrate how the nation can progress after his presidency. He acknowledged that “rancor and suspicion” had grown between Democrats and Republicans, calling the development “one of the few regrets of my presidency.” Americans must repair the “basic bonds of trust between its citizens,” he said.

“It’s easier to be cynical,” he said. “But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure.”

“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” he said, in what appeared to be a rebuttal of claims by the Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, whose campaign slogan is “make America great again.”

“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close,” Obama said, repeating the sentence.

Trump said on Twitter that Obama’s address was "really boring, slow, lethargic -- very hard to watch!"

Republican Response

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley criticized Obama’s economic record and his foreign policy in the Republican party’s official response to Obama’s address. By comparison with recent predecessors in the role -- a notoriously difficult speaking assignment -- Haley’s remarks were warm and poised.

“The president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words,” Haley said. “Many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels. We’re feeling a crushing national debt, a health-care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities.”

Haley said that Americans face “the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th" and that Obama “appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it."

However, she and Obama appeared to agree that U.S. politics were poisoned, and she reserved some blame for her own party. "We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken, and then we need to fix it," she said.

In an apparent rebuke to anti-immigrant elements in her own party, Haley recounted her own upbringing as the child of Indian immigrants and said that no one should be turned away from entering the country based on race or religion.

Trump has called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants to the U.S. and has made a crackdown on undocumented Latin American immigrants a keystone of his campaign.

"No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country," Haley said. "That does not mean we just flat-out open our borders. We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally, and in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined."

Cancer Cure

While Obama’s remarks were short on new initiatives, the president made fresh calls for progress on favored proposals during his final year in office, including an immigration overhaul, reducing prison sentences for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, limiting access to firearms and raising the minimum wage.

Obama said he and congressional Republicans could work together to finish the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that would lower tariffs across a dozen nations. Changing sentencing guidelines is a proposal that enjoys support from both liberal Democrats and fiscal conservatives, he said, as do efforts to tackle the nation’s growing opioid-abuse epidemic and systemic poverty.

He also announced the creation of a new effort to cure cancer, to be led by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden said last year he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination after months of grieving the death of his son, Beau Biden, who succumbed to cancer.

“For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” Obama said.

Reshaping America

The nation and its lawmakers, Obama said, could choose to seize the potential of the future and reshape how Americans work and live.

“We live in a time of extraordinary change –- change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world,” Obama said. “And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”

Technology threatens to replace the jobs of anyone in a field where work can be automated, Obama said, reducing workers’ leverage for higher wages. The nation must figure out how to make technology “work for us, and not against us,” for example by combating climate change. For good measure, he highlighted rapid growth in wind and solar energy industries during his presidency.

The U.S. should enact universal pre-kindergarten programs for children and bolster training in math, science and engineering to ensure American workers remain vital, he said.

Obama again called on Congress to pass an authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State militant group, end the economic embargo against Cuba, and help limit the costs of college tuition -- initiatives that aren’t likely to be enacted before the end of his presidency.

And Obama renewed his push for new gun-control measures, a week after he moved unilaterally to tighten regulations on unregistered firearms sellers. One seat in the First Lady’s box was left empty as a tribute to people killed in gun violence, and multiple members of Congress invited shooting victims and gun-control activists to attend the speech as their guests.

Terrorism Fears

Obama also sought to soothe concerns about terrorism spawned by Islamic State and other militants, even as the detention of U.S. sailors by Iran renewed criticism of his foreign policy. 

“This couldn’t be worse timing for the president,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said in an interview. “It reinforces two stereotypes: that the Iranians were on the prowl and President Obama isn’t very well respected.”

Republicans said the events in Iran, like the U.S. response following terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, showed that Obama had lost public confidence in his ability to conduct foreign policy and combat threats emanating from the Middle East. A resurgent Russia has challenged the U.S. in Ukraine and in Syria. North Korea last week tested what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb, though the Obama administration has cast doubt the device tested was that advanced.

Obama said that al-Qaeda and Islamic State represent a “direct threat” to Americans, but cautioned against “over-the-top claims that this is World War III.”

‘Sound Bite’

“They do not threaten our national existence,” he said. He again appeared to rebuke a Republican presidential candidate, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has called for “carpet-bombing” against Islamic State.

When the world comes to the U.S. for leadership in global crises, “our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians,” Obama said. “That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”

Cruz said on Twitter that the speech was "less a State of the Union and more a state of denial. We need a president who will defeat radical Islamic terrorism."

Public opinion polling suggests that the Republican message is resonating. Just 27 percent of Americans described the country as headed in the right direction, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll released earlier this month. A majority -- 54 percent -- disapproved of the president’s handling of foreign policy, and only a third of respondents said Obama was doing a good job.

Economic Rebound

Obama painted the country as on the verge of economic resurgence, thanks to the work of his administration.

Unemployment, now at 5 percent, has been cut in half from its peak in October 2009, while annual auto sales have doubled over the same period. About 17.6 million Americans are estimated to have gained health insurance due to Obama’s health-care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans point to stagnant wages as a key indicator of continued distress in the economy. Their presidential candidates have all vowed to repeal the health law, which they call a government overstep and blame for rising insurance premiums.

Obama acknowledged that criticism, while depicting a choice between the policies advocated by both sides of the aisle. He said he would promote companies that had done right by their workers and said the country should prioritize the wages of working families over corporate profits.

“Food stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did,” Obama said.

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