Obama urges optimism in final State of the Union address

US president uses landmark speech to defend legacy and address tone of 2016 race

US President Barack Obama touts his economic record in his final State of the Union address. Video: Reuters

 

Barack Obama used his final annual State of the Union address to defend his presidential record and hit back at Republicans for cultivating divisions in the fiery election battle to succeed him.

Attempting to counter Republican charges on the presidential campaign trail that he has weakened the United States, Mr Obama boasted of the US having the “strongest, most durable economy in the world” and the country being “the most powerful nation on Earth”.

“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” he told Congress in his flagship speech, aiming to set an optimistic tone against the negative rhetoric of the presidential race.

The president hailed his achievements of the past seven years, including healthcare reform, the diplomatic deals with Iran and Cuba and the recovery of the American economy since the 2008 crisis.

“All the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air,” he told the joint session of Congress. “So is all the the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.”

Calling on Americans to “fix our politics,” the president warned of the dangers of divisive rhetoric, making several thinly veiled references to the inflammatory politics of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.

“Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention,” said Mr Obama.

Without naming Mr Trump or fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz, Mr Obama admonished the presidential contenders for their anti-Muslim proposals in response to terror attacks, saying that that they are damaging America’s security and standing in the world.

“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalised, when a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” he said.

Confronting the climate of fear created by his opponents, Mr Obama accused critics of his strategy to defeat Islamic State of playing into the militant group’s hands by exaggerating their threat.

“Masses of fighters on the back of pick-up trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages post an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped, but they do not threaten our national existence,” he said.

His demand for greater conciliation in American politics appeared directed as much at a gridlocked Congress that has frustrated his legislative agenda as at Republican candidates rubbishing his record on a daily business during a hard-fought presidential campaign.

He acknowledged that because it was an election year, expectations for what could be achieved this year are “low”, even referring to the four senators running for president who were “antsy to get back to Iowa”, the state holding the first nominating contest next month.

Mr Obama, who won a famous election to the White House in 2008 with a promise to overcome differences, admitted that it was “one of the few regrets of his presidency that the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better”.

The president acknowledged his own shortcomings in failing to heal political divisions between Republicans and Democrats.

“I have no doubt that a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office,” he said.

He urged people not to retreat into tribes or to scapegoat fellow citizens because they looked, prayed or voted differently.

“We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want,” he said.

Dropping the formulaic wish-list of policies so typical of State of the Union addresses, Mr Obama went for big themes, aiming to cement his legacy by speaking about the challenges beyond his final year in office.

His speech, at about 5,500 words and lasting just over an hour, was shorter than his previous six addresses.

Recalling a bygone period of American ingenuity, Mr Obama called for a new spirit of innovation to meet challenges like climate change.

“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” he said.

“We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space programme almost overnight and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon.”

Where he did make specific proposals, Mr Obama called again for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, the lifting of the embargo of Cuba, the authorisation of the use of military force against Islamic State militants and a reform of the criminal justice system.

Mr Obama also announced a new national initiative to find a cure for cancer, naming vice president Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer last year, to lead it.

Delivering the traditional Republican response to the Democratic president’s address, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley criticised Mr Obama’s economic and foreign policies. He “spoke eloquently about grand things” but his record fell short “of his soaring words”, she said.

Like the president, she also criticised Republican presidential candidates such as Mr Trump without naming him.

“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation.”