WASHINGTON — President Obama used his seventh and final State of the Union address Tuesday night to reflect on the historic nature of his presidency and his accomplishments, while acknowledging his inability to soothe the intense divisions that roil America’s political debates, agencies report.
At a time of renewed anxiety over terrorism and in a US Capitol that remains profoundly split on partisan lines, Obama said he remained optimistic about the country, even as he delivered a veiled warning against candidates trying to harness fear and anxiety for political gain.
“America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights,” Obama said. “Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future, who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control.”
He focused on gains in the economy after the deep recession of 2008, on a health care system with 15 million more insured Americans, and on strong bonds with foreign allies. And he vented some of his pent-up frustrations, built up over his years in Washington, with the state of American politics.
But in a recognition that few of his proposals would pass a Republican-controlled Congress, he offered a modest list of legislation for his last year in office. He mentioned gun control just once, barely brought up immigration, and discussed raising the minimum wage in passing.
Instead, the president often spoke in broad, aspirational terms, urging Americans to embrace a future that holds promise and to reject calls that could sow more divisions, nationally and globally. As he entered the House chamber, Democrats greeted him effusively, with some chanting his 2008 campaign slogan, “Fired up, ready to go!”
The guests in the House chamber seemed to illustrate some of the country’s divisions. Among those invited to sit with first lady Michelle Obama were a Syrian refugee, and a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage. One seat was left empty, to symbolize all of the victims of gun violence.
Obama sought to showcase a foreign policy approach that he believes has succeeded in putting diplomacy first, reducing global friction and averting the need for military force. He cited his deal with Iran in which the Iranians agreed to give up some of their nuclear capacity in exchange for relief from international sanctions. That deal could go into full effect as soon as this weekend.
Obama also pointed to renewed relations with Cuba, and working with a global coalition to address climate change.
“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. “It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”
With much of the political focus on the 2016 presidential election, White House officials viewed Obama’s address as one of the best opportunities to both tout his successes and begin to defend his record. “For this final one, I’m going to try to make it shorter,” Obama joked at the start. “I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.”
With Vice President Joe Biden — and, for the first time, new House Speaker Paul Ryan — behind him, Obama also sought to project an optimistic vision of the country, attempting to contrast with what they view as negative messages from some of the Republicans trying to succeed him.
“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 said. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”
In a series of lines that seemed aimed at the harsh rhetoric most espoused by GOP front-runner Donald Trump, the president also called in the country to “reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.” “When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” Obama said. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.”
The president argued that the United States could be improved only if the political situation improves. To curb partisan bickering, Obama called for states to reduce gerrymandered districts and asked for stronger curbs on the influence of money in politics.
“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too,” he said. “Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and imperatives of security.”
“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. He also lamented some inflammatory calls on the Republican campaign trail for relying more on America’s arsenal to solve delicate geopolitical problems.
“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,’’ the president said, in a nod to comments made by Senator Ted Cruz, who is leading in some GOP polls in Iowa. “That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”
Obama was elected on a message of hope and change, with a political biography that emphasized an ability to heal the divides between red states and blue states. But Republicans vociferously opposed his every move, and he struggled to reach across the aisle and was frequently criticized for being too insular. Republicans have emerged emboldened, and gained control of the House and Senate under his tenure.
The White House billed this year’s State of the Union address — a ritual filled with pageantry — as “nontraditional” and sought to capitalize on a variety of tools to get Obama’s message out beyond the televised address. The White House created a Snapchat account and Obama participated in a Facebook chat three hours before his speech at the Capitol. Beginning Wednesday, Obama and several Cabinet members plan to travel around the country to discuss various policies.
But the speech was also unique in that it lacked the litany of policy proposals that are included in most State of the Union addresses. Obama also began making a last push to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay — a campaign promise he has not yet fulfilled — and continued his effort to tighten gun control laws.
Representative Seth Moulton, the Democrat from Salem, invited a wounded Syrian boy and his father to be his guests at the address. Ahmad Alkhalaf, 9, lost both his arms and three of his siblings when the Syrian government bombed the camp where he lived with his family. Ahmad now lives with his father in Sharon while receiving treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Ahmad and his father spent part of the afternoon in Moulton’s office Tuesday. He sat between Moulton and his father, Dirgam Alkhalaf, as he told reporters through a translator about his family. He said he talks by phone with his mother and four siblings, who are living in Turkey, and hopes they will join him in the United States.
Republicans invited Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who drew national attention for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples even after the Supreme Court decision. Following the address, Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina delivered the Republican response.
“The president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words. As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels,” she said . “Soon, the Obama presidency will end,” she added. “And America will have the chance to turn in a new direction.”