Nearing the end of his time in office, President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address Tuesday night to tout his record, hoping to frame the coming elections on his terms, much as he did when he first seized the White House.
At times serious, at times joking with the Republicans who control the Congress, Obama focused on the successes of his presidency and what he said should be an optimism about the future rather than the gloomy portraits of the country in GOP campaigns.
“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” he asked. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”
He also teased members of both parties campaigning to replace him, some of them in the audience and some still on the campaign trail in Iowa and other states that start voting for new nominees in a few weeks. “I’m going to try to make it shorter,” he said of his remarks. “I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.”
Here are five takeaways from Obama’s speech:
Obama worked to convince a skeptical country that it should be more confident in its future, drawing 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.
That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
President Barack Obama
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.
The state of Obama
Obama recited what he said were his accomplishments improving the quality of life for Americans at home and boosting the United States’s 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.
Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.
President Barack Obama
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.”
Republicans didn’t hide their opposition, stocking the audience with administration critics. Among Ryan’s guests: two nuns representing the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order that is suing the administration, arguing that the Affordable Care Act is forcing their insurance to cover birth control.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who blames Obama’s environmental regulations for decimating the coal industry, invited a fourth-generation coal miner who lost his job when a mine closed.
Politics of division
Obama lamented the current state of political discourse and acknowledged that he had failed to unite the country.
“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.
And as some GOP candidates have called for barring religious groups from entering the country, 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. “It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong.”
“When a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” he added. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, an up-and-coming Republican who delivered her party’s response, did something unusual: She not only criticized the president but her own party.
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When talking about the dysfunction in Washington, she said Republican bear some blame.
“There is more than enough blame to go around,” she said. “We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.”
Haley, who won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike on her decision to take the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds and help her state recover from a mass shooting at a historically black church, also said the United States should embrace immigrants even as some in her party might not.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation.”
But the U.S. born daughter of Indian immigrants also said that the United States must stop illegal immigration and properly vet refugees before they come into the country.
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.