(UPI) — President Barack Obama‘s final State of the Union address energetically looked forward to his final year in office more than it touted his own accomplishments. He also talked tough about the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates.
Change was a theme in the nearly hour-long speech as the president began his eighth year — “extraordinary change” that was both inspirational as well as something that has stirred the current sense of national anxiety. He said each time the country has faced eras of change, “We made change work for us.”
Because of that, the president put greater emphasis in his speech on where the country needs to go and what still lies ahead rather than spending much time talking about the recovery from the Great Recession, the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal, marriage equality or the recent Paris climate change agreement.
Obama continued to push for raising the minimum wage, making college more affordable, sticking with a more internationalist foreign policy and called for a mission to cure cancer, a mission he personalized by announcing he would put Vice President Joe Biden in charge. Biden’s son, Beau, died of cancer last year.
He also called for fixing the immigration system, something Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said wouldn’t be addressed until 2017. But Obama made overtures to Ryan and specifically applauded the new speaker for his interest in helping the poor.
“Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention,” the president said. “It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.
“Food stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did,” he said. “Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.”
And he seemed to stun the room when he took both parties to task for being removed from what life is like for average Americans.
“It’s not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber.”
Obama made other demands of Congress: Lifting the Cuban embargo, approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, closing the prison in Guantanamo and putting federal funding behind an initiative to end malaria.
But he continued to challenge Republican talking points on several issues.
“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” Obama said.
He went after climate change deniers, declaring “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 also touted White House policy of solar energy independence as “something environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support.”
The president attempted to turn the argument around by putting the question to many in Congress still dragging their feet.
“Why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”
Obama challenged at length the idea that his policies only helped build the Islamic State, and put it on Congress to approve military intervention.
“With or without congressional action, [the Islamic State] will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them. If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden,” he said. “Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.
“We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire,” Obama said. “It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”
Even with his eyes on the exit, Obama argued for a change in the political climate that created the angry partisanship that has bogged down Washington for much of his presidency.
“The future we want,” the president said, “… will only happen if we fix our politics.”
“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything” he said, but democracy demands that voters be involved, because real change “will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.
Though one thing president chose not to mention was the 10 U.S. sailors being held hostage by Iranian security, the White House said earlier they fully expect the situation to be resolved, in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry “very soon.”