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.”
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.
Smoke believed to be from an airstrike billows over the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, Nov. 12, 2015.
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.»
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.
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) tours the Kotzebue Shore Avenue Project, an effort to protect against rising sea levels in Kotzebue, Alaska Sept. 2, 2015.
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.
Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan listen as President Obama gives his State of the Union address, Jan. 12, 2016.
The Republican response to Obama’s speech was delivered by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who has been rumored as a possible vice presidential choice for the eventual Republican presidential nominee.
Governor Haley accused the president of not living up to 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. We’re feeling a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities,» Haley said.
«Even worse, we are facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it. Soon, the Obama presidency will end, and America will have the chance to turn in a new direction. That direction is what I want to talk about tonight,» she added.