In his seventh and final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama touted his accomplishments and focused on his vision for the future, in an optimistic speech that attempted to define his legacy as he enters his final year in office.
Addressing a packed House of Representatives chamber Tuesday in the U.S. Capitol, Obama appeared relaxed and his tone was largely positive as he focused on the need to heal the country’s deep political divides.
But the president also took several swipes at his critics, on several occasions offering indirect but harsh criticisms of the Republican rivals who are vying to replace him as president in the ongoing 2016 election campaign.
In particular, Obama slammed “politics that targets people because of race or religion,” a statement seen as a criticism of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, the blunt-talking billionaire who wants a temporary ban on Muslim immigration.
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong,” he said. “It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
Watch highlights of the address:
Obama also hit out at his domestic opponents on economic issues, saying “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”
“The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” Obama said. He pointed to more than 14 million new jobs, an unemployment rate cut in half, and growing automobile and manufacturing industries.
“Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either,” he said, to applause.
On foreign policy, Obama acknowledged the threat posed by terrorist groups, including Islamic State, which has carried out a series of high-profile attacks around the globe.
But he cautioned that Islamist terrorists are not an existential concern, warning against those who say the world is sinking into “World War III.”
“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.”
Watch video report from Carolyn Presutti:
Obama also vowed to continue the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a campaign many have criticized as being too weak and indecisive.
“If you doubt America’s commitment – or mine – to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden,” he said, referring to the late head of al-Qaida killed by a U.S. special forces operation in Pakistan in 2011.
“When you come after Americans, we will go after you,” Obama said. “It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit.”
Obama also cited other foreign policy accomplishments, including stopping the spread of Ebola in West Africa, forging the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, restarting diplomatic relations with Cuba, and sealing the Iran nuclear deal.
More work needed
But more work needs to be done, the president said.
Specifically, he renewed his vow to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. “It’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies,” he said.
Obama also called on fellow lawmakers to join him in efforts to combat global warming, an issue he said was crucial to protecting national security.
“If anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it,” he said. “You’ll be pretty lonely.”
“Because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it,” he said.
No mention of Iran dispute
Obama’s speech did not mention Tuesday’s incident in which 10 U.S. sailors were detained by Iran, after apparently straying into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf.
Other U.S. officials have attempted to play down the incident, saying Iran has agreed to “promptly” release the sailors.
The incident threatened to become an awkward distraction for Obama, coming hours before the address during which he was to present his Iran policy as a major achievement.
Partisan divide ‘has gotten worse’
The president’s speech was introspective, and at times even apologetic. One of Obama’s biggest regrets, he said, is that he failed to fulfill his campaign promises to help heal the country’s massive political divide.
“The rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he lamented.
Obama acknowledged that the expectations are low for his final year in office, but vowed he will not stop working to achieve his policy goals.
“Fixing a broken immigration system, protecting our kids from gun violence, equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage – all these things still matter to hardworking families; they are still the right thing to do; and I will not let up until they get done,” he said.
The candidates running to take over the White House had predictable reactions to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, with Republicans calling it boring and out of touch with events in the world and Democrats praising the president’s record.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump said the speech was lethargic and “hard to watch.”
“The State of the Union speech was one of the most boring, rambling, and non-substantive I have heard in a long time,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “New leadership fast!”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has been climbing in polls in the past two months, called Obama’s speech “a state of denial.”
Cruz said Obama diminished the threat posed by Islamic State and failed to mention last year’s terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.
“I will apologize to nobody for my commitment to kill the terrorists,” Cruz told MSNBC. He has proposed “carpet bombing” Islamic State, one of the comments by Republicans during their campaign that Obama referenced in his address.
“The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians,” Obama said. He also referred to some American’s fears about a changing country, and to those who promise to “restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control.”
Trump can often be seen at his campaign events with a hat declaring, “Make America great again!”
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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been narrowing the gap in the Democratic race with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shared Obama’s sentiment.
“Tonight’s speech was important,” he said. “The president reminded us not to be afraid of change, but to wield it to improve the lives of all Americans.”
Clinton focused on the domestic issues in the speech, tweeting a large picture thanking Obama and his “seven years of progress,” and saying the country to needs to build on that instead of going backwards.
“[Obama] has kept the economy strong and the country safe,” Clinton said. “That’s what the president needs to do. That’s the job.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush did not see Obama’s claims about the strength of the American economy and the safety of its people in the same light.
“President Obama is living in a different world to think our country is safer and stronger,” Bush said. “The economy might be the best this president can do, but it’s not the best America can do.”
Obama’s address included a section on tackling global warming as part of an overall theme of creating jobs, saving money and preserving the planet.
But neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who briefly topped Republican polls in November before falling sharply, said Obama should spend less time worrying about global warming and put more of a focus on defeating Islamic State. He also faulted the president for “complaining” about global warming instead of discussing 10 U.S. Navy personnel detained by Iran earlier in the day.
The candidates have less than three weeks until the first contest in the nomination process in Iowa on February 1. Each party will hold one debate before then, with the Republicans debating Thursday and the Democrats on Sunday. The nominees from each party will face off in the general election in November.