In his final State of the Union address, President Obama on Tuesday night called for a “better politics” where Americans are willing to compromise and listen to other points of view.
“The future we want — opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids — all that is within our reach,” he said. “But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.”
Included in this would be debates about the size and role of government. “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything,” the president said. “Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.”
The key, he said, is “basic bonds of trust” between citizens. “It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic.”
Obama mentioned only one civilian federal agency by name, praising a recent funding boost at the National Institutes of Health and unveiling a new “moonshot” to cure cancer, with Vice President Biden in charge of “mission control.”
The speech -- given amid an unfolding international news story of 10 U.S. sailors being held by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard for accidentally straying into Iranian waters -- listed the controversial nuclear deal with Iran among foreign policy achievements that also included the 60-nation coalition to defeat ISIS in Syria and the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal awaiting approval by Congress.
Obama spoke to a packed chamber from which only one Cabinet member was absent—Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson stayed away as the “designated survivor.”
Domestically, Obama touted “the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history—more than 14 million new jobs” and boasted of lifting high school graduation rates to new highs. In a not-so-subtle nod to criticism of his administration from Republican presidential candidates, he said, “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”
Obama repeated past positions urging action on immigration reform, gun violence protections, college affordability and raising the minimum wage. He also offered familiar Democratic Party defenses of the social safety net, ribbing members of Congress for being among the few “people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years.”
Social Security and Medicare, he added, “are more important than ever; we shouldn’t weaken them, we should strengthen them. And for Americans short of retirement, basic benefits should be just as mobile as everything else is today.” Such portability is one advantage of the Affordable Care Act, Obama said, noting that it has provided new health coverage to 18 million Americans.
Acknowledging House Speaker Paul Ryan’s interest in tackling poverty, Obama called for an economy that serves more than just corporate interests, stating that food stamp recipients did not cause the 2008 financial crisis.
“I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy,” Obama said. “I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there’s red tape that needs to be cut. But after years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else; or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered.”
Touting alternative energy such as wind and solar power, Obama said those who want to debate the science on climate change “will be pretty lonely” given the embrace of conservation by many in the business world.
Internationally, Obama acknowledged that the system built after World War II is “struggling to keep pace” with a new reality and that America must set priorities. “Priority No. 1 is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks,” he said, affirming that “both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people” because of the damage that can be inflicted by terrorists who don’t value human life.
“But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” said the president, who called on Congress to vote to authorize force against that enemy. “We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, nor do we need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions. “
But America remains, he added, “The most powerful nation on earth. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” he said. “No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.”
Perhaps his most important message, Obama said, is on the need to “fix our politics” and make them “reflect the best in us.” He called for an end to the practice of drawing congressional districts “so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.” He proposed curbing the influence of money and making “voting easier, not harder” while modernizing the process.
“America has been through big changes before – wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights,” the president said. “Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the dogmas of the quiet past. Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people.”
He ended by saying he “stands as confident as ever that the state of our union is strong.”
In the Republican response, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said she understood Americans’ frustration with a government in Washington “that has grown day after day, year after year, yet doesn’t serve us any better. A frustration with the same, endless conversations we hear over and over again. A frustration with promises made and never kept.”
Haley blamed both parties for a government that is “broken.” But looking beyond Obama, she said, a Republican in the White House would mean lower taxes and spending and lowered debt. “We would encourage American innovation and success instead of demonizing them,” she said. “We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses. We would end a disastrous health care program, and replace it with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor. We would respect differences in modern families, but we would also insist on respect for religious liberty as a cornerstone of our democracy.”