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Obama urges ‘anxious’ nation to rekindle belief in promise of change

Implicit in reference to slogan that carried him into office is a call to keep Democrats in the White House

Eyeing the end of his presidency, Barack Obama urged Americans on Tuesday night to rekindle their belief in the promise of change that first carried him to the White House, declaring that the country must not allow election year fear and division to put economic and security progress at risk.

“All the talk of America's economic decline is political hot air,” Obama said in his final State of the Union address. “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,” he said. He acknowledged that a lot of Americans feel “anxious” over the state of the country's finances, and noted that the economy had been changing in profound ways since before the Great Repression, citing the impact of technology on jobs and employees leverage for a raise.

The president's address to lawmakers and a prime-time television audience was meant to both shape his legacy and put his imprint squarely on the race to succeed him. He defended his record — and implicitly urged the public to elect another Democratic president to build on it — but acknowledged the persistent anxieties of Americans who feel shut out of a changing economy or at risk from an evolving terrorist threat. 

While Obama did not directly call out Republicans, he sharply and at times sarcastically struck back at critics who have challenged his economic and national security stewardship.

In his most pointed swipe at the GOP candidates running to succeed him, he warned against “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.”

His words were unexpectedly echoed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was selected to give the Republican response to Obama's address. Underscoring how the heated campaign rhetoric about immigrants and minorities from GOP front-runner Donald Trump in particular has unnerved some Republican leaders, she called on Americans to resist the temptation “to follow the siren call of the angriest voices.”

“No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome,” she said.

Focused on his legacy, Obama ticked off a retrospective of his domestic and foreign policy actions in office, including helping lead the economy back from the brink of depression, taking aggressive action on climate change and ending the Cold War freeze with Cuba.

He touted reaching a landmark nuclear deal with Iran but made no mention of the 10 American sailors picked up by Iran on Tuesday. After holding the men overnight, Tehran released the crew Wednesday.

Tackling one of the most vexing foreign policy challenges of his presidency, Obama vowed a robust campaign to "take out" the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but chastised Republicans for "over the top claims" about the group's power.

“Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger and must be stopped,” he said. “But they do not threaten our national existence.”

The president dismissed the idea that ISIL poses an existential threat to the U.S., saying that's the story ISIL wants to tell and the message it uses in propaganda to recruit. He said suggestions that the struggle with ISIL will develop into World War III plays into the group's hands.

Obama also criticized those who say ISIL represents Islam. He said that is a lie and that rhetoric like that pushes away allies the U.S. needs to win the fight.

He was apparently alluding to Republican politicians who have demanded Obama declare war on “radical Islamic extremists,” and he repeated his declaration that the U.S. will hunt them down and destroy them.

The president's words were unlikely to satisfy Republicans, as well as some Democrats, who say he underestimates ISIL's power and is leaving the U.S. vulnerable to attacks at home.

Obama was frank about one of his biggest regrets: failing to ease the persistently deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

“The rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he conceded. “There's no doubt 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 specifically called for ending the gerrymandering of some congressional districts that gives parties an iron grip on House seats. He also urged steps to make voting easier and reduce the influence of money in politics.

Mindful of the scant prospects for major legislative action in an election year, Obama avoided the traditional litany of policy proposals. He did reiterate his call for working with Republicans on criminal justice reform and finalizing an Asia-Pacific trade pact, and he vowed to keep pushing for action on politically fraught issues such as curbing gun violence and fixing the nation's fractured immigration laws.

Yet he was eager to look beyond his own presidency, casting the actions he has taken as a springboard for economic progress and national security. His optimism was meant to draw a contrast to what the White House sees as doom-and-gloom scenarios peddled by the GOP.

Republicans were largely dismissive of the president's address. Paul Ryan, assuming for the first time the House speaker's traditional seat behind the president for the address, said Obama's “lofty platitudes and nostalgic rhetoric may make for nice sound bites, but they don't explain how to” solve problems.

Wire services

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