Obama Urges Americans to Embrace Change and Reject Fear

obama_650x400_81452659880WASHINGTON:President Barack Obama on Tuesday tried to reconcile an optimistic assessment of the nation’s progress with the anxieties he conceded have gripped Americans during his tenure, using his final State of the Union address to try to burnish his record and frame the campaign to succeed him.
In a prime-time televised speech that was more a broad statement of vision than a policy prescription, Obama sought to present an ambitious portrait of the nation after seven years of his leadership, with a resurgent economy and better standing in the world despite continuing challenges of inequality at home and terrorism abroad.

But he acknowledged that many Americans feel frightened and shut out of a political and economic system they view as rigged against their interests, even as he offered an implicit rebuke of Republicans who are playing on those insecurities in the presidential race.

“As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” Obama said. “We can’t afford to go down that path.
He repeatedly sought to contrast Republicans’ bleak appraisals of the state of the nation with his own upbeat argument. In one of the most applauded lines of the evening, Obama declared: “I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air.

Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.
It’s not even close!”
Obama implicitly singled out Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, for pointed criticism, saying that Americans must resist calls to stigmatize all Muslims at a time of threats from the Islamic State.
“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” Obama 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?”
The speech, a mix of Obama’s often lofty rhetoric with punchy, colloquial language, drew more scattered applause than in earlier years. The president appeared liberated by his decision not to present the usual menu of legislative proposals and spoke more informally and with occasional flashes of humor.
“Now I’m guessing we won’t agree on health care anytime soon,” he said at one point, as the sound of a single person clapping on the Republican side could be heard in the chamber. Obama smiled. “A little applause back there,” he said wryly.
America should harness innovation, Obama said, not be intimidated by it. He called for a “moonshot” effort to cure cancer, to be led by Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his son to the disease last year.

The remarks before a joint session of Congress departed from Obama’s past practice of outlining executive actions intended to sidestep gridlock in Washington.
Instead, Obama sought to pose and answer the four central questions his aides said were driving the debate about America’s future, including how to ensure opportunity for everyone, how to harness technological change, how to keep the country safe, and how to fix the nation’s broken politics.
Obama, who campaigned for president promising hope and change and vowed when he took office to transform Washington and politics itself, accepted some degree of responsibility for falling short of that goal.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said, adding that “a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”
He called for an end to gerrymandering – the gaming of political districts to ensure one party’s advantage – reducing the influence of secretive campaign contributions and making voting easier.
Obama also called on Americans to get more involved in politics and participate, a theme of his first campaign and of his presidency.

The speech was one of Obama’s few remaining opportunities to shape the public conversation before the nation’s attention shifts to the campaign to replace him that is already underway. Except for a final address at the Democratic convention this summer, Tuesday night might have been Obama’s last big speech.
“I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa – I’ve been there,” he said at the start, acknowledging that the political focus is on the state, which holds the country’s first nominating caucuses.

Obama was determined that the address be forward-looking, aides said, even as his time remaining in the White House is limited. The president called for compromise with Republicans on an overhaul of the criminal justice system, approval of a broad free-trade agreement spanning the Pacific Rim and new initiatives to address poverty and the opioid crisis in the United States. He proposed to provide jobless workers with retraining in addition to the unemployment payments they already received.

In an effort to find common ground with Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Obama noted that Ryan, a Republican, supports expanding a federal tax credit for low- and middle-income workers.

“Who knows, we might surprise the cynics again,” he said, noting a bipartisan budget agreement they struck late last year.

And he repeated past calls for legislative action on his domestic initiatives that have fallen short, including raising the minimum wage, revising the nation’s immigration laws and enacting stricter gun restrictions.
He used the speech to trace the arc of his presidency and its major themes: the economic collapse and recovery, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the push for free trade and climate pacts, and his failed bids for an immigration overhaul and new gun laws.

Obama also argued that the country’s most acute challenges emanate not from the strength of adversaries – a primary criticism of Republicans who portray the president as feckless in the face of mounting threats – but from their weakness.
He defended his approach to taking on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, describing it as a dangerous threat to the United States that must be dealt with, but not an existential one, and not a force that warrants a commitment of American ground forces in Iraq and Syria.
The president also said the United States is uniquely positioned to rally other countries to solve global problems, highlighting his work in forging nuclear deal with Iran, opening a new era of relations with Cuba, pressing for a global accord reached in Paris to combat climate change, and efforts to eradicate Ebola.
“The world will look to us to help solve these problems,” Obama said, “and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians.”
Republicans used the occasion to contrast their agenda and their values with those of the sitting president, and to offer their own, far more negative assessment of his tenure.
“The president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words,” Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina said in her official response, delivered immediately after Obama’s, according to excerpts released in advance. “As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels.”
“Even worse,” she added, “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.”If Republicans held the White House, Haley said, taxes would be lower, spending slowed and the military strengthened.

“We would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around,” she said, referring to the international agreement Obama pressed for that lifts sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions to its nuclear ability.

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