President Obama offered a stirring defense of his economic record in an election-year State of the Union address overshadowed Tuesday by Iran’s seizure of 10 U.S. sailors.
Obama argued that “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction” in comments directed to Republican critics.
Obama, speaking to a joint session of Congress in his seventh and final State of the Union speech, offered the nation assurances that his policies would keep America strong and safe from rival nations and terrorist organizations.
But his message was undercut by a diplomatic crisis evolving on the other side of the world, which offered an opportunity for Republicans to renew their criticisms of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The president defended the deal in his speech, stating it is a core part of a “patient and disciplined strategy” of using international diplomacy to take on the world’s problems. But he made no mention of the day's events in the Persian Gulf.
“As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war,” he said.
Obama also vowed to go after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), even as he criticized “over-the-top claims that this is World War III,” a shot at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP presidential candidate who said the country is already in such a conflict.
“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. But they do not threaten our national existence,” said Obama, who has been criticized for various comments about ISIS that suggested they had been contained or were a “JV” terrorist group.
Christie wasn’t the only Republican candidate for the White House to come under criticism from Obama.
The president also took aim at Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), saying the U.S. answer to ISIS “needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians.”
And much of the address sounded like a rebuttal of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s vision of America.
Obama said at times of great change, America has never given in to “those who told us to fear the future” or promised “to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control” — a clear shot at Trump.
The billionaire real estate mogul rocketed to the top of the field by saying that the country is a mess, and that he will “make America great again.” He has also called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration.
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” Obama said, prompting Democrats to jump out of their seats in applause. “It’s just wrong … it betrays who we are as a country."
Perhaps more surprisingly, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in the GOP response to Obama’s speech also appeared to take a shot at Trump.
Haley, who is Indian-American, cast herself with the immigration families who for generations have come to the United States seeking the American dream.
“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory,” Haley said in her prepared remarks. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
Obama criticized lawmakers for not approving a new authorization of military force against ISIS.
He also called for the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba to be closed, a promise he first made during his opening days in office. The prison is “expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies,” Obama said.
Ahead of the speech, Republicans demanded that Obama address Iran’s sabre-rattling. They also argued the president should nullify the nuclear deal unless the U.S. sailors were immediately released.
“It's humiliating for Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPerez to hit the Sunday shows following election victory Trump adviser: Dems should 'move on' from Garland EPA chief calls for 'aggressive' rollback of regulations at CPAC MORE and therefore the United States to have American sailors held hostage during his final State of the Union,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on CNN’s “Situation Room” ahead of the speech.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) even floated the idea of delaying the address until members of Congress are briefed on the situation.
Yet, Obama appeared at ease throughout his 59-minute address.
He opened with a joke about his final address being scheduled early because “some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa,” glancing in the direction of Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a GOP presidential candidate.
"I've been there," he quipped. "I'll be shaking hands afterwards if you want some tips.”
There was a hint of wistfulness too. On his way out of the House chamber, Obama stopped, turned around and said “let me take one more look at this thing."
As expected, the president did not rattle off a list of requests he knows the GOP-controlled Congress will not fulfill, save for a few that have bipartisan support, such as passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and criminal justice reform.
Instead he made a plea to the nation to overcome the persistent partisan divide he pledged to bridge during his first White House campaign.
Obama said the country’s broken politics is “one of the few regrets” of his presidency, saying average Americans feel they don’t have a voice and believe the system is rigged against them.
He cited specific examples, such as the influence of money in politics, gerrymandering and the spread of stricter voter identification laws in states across the country.
“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,” he said. “But it will only happen if we work together. … It will only happen if we fix our politics.”
Obama was clearly seeking to use one of his final addresses to the nation to help Democrats hold on to the White House in 2016.
He tossed out plenty of red meat for his own party, hectoring Republicans for denying climate change and blaming immigrants for stagnant wage growth. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), sitting on the rostrum for the first time during a State of the Union, tried to keep a poker face throughout.
As evidence the country was moving in a positive direction, Obama reflected on how some of the biggest decisions of his presidency, including his healthcare reform law and the auto bailout, 70 straight months of private-sector job growth and a shrinking deficit.
“We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people,” he said. “And because we did, because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril, we emerged stronger and better than before.”
But he also acknowledged that people are anxious about their economic security, with the stock market in flux and globalization sparking major changes in the nation’s economy.
He also announced he’s tapping Vice President Biden to spearhead his “moonshot” effort to cure cancer, causing the vice president to become emotional.
Obama will amplify his message by hitting the road this week, speaking at a college in Omaha, Neb., and a high school in Baton Rouge, La. The White House launched a social media blitz on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat ahead of the speech to promote the president's message to new audiences.
The president has pledged to leave nothing on the table during his final year in office. But up against the din of the campaign season, White House officials are mindful of how difficult it could be for the message to break through.
“The president doesn’t think the speech is going to change a lot of minds,” White House communications director Jen Psaki told reporters earlier Tuesday. “But the question is: Can you leave people with a takeaway that makes them think and make them talk.”
This story was updated at 10:53 p.m.