Obama cheered

Free Press staff, wire reports | 1/15/2016, 7:08 a.m.
President Obama took aim on Tuesday at Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and accused critics of playing into the hands …
President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday during his State of the Union address. Evan Vucci/REUTERS/Pool

President Obama took aim on Tuesday at Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and accused critics of playing into the hands of the Islamic State in a speech meant to cement his legacy and set a positive tone for his final year in office.

Delivering his last annual State of the Union speech to Congress as president, he called for leaders to “fix” U.S. politics and criticized candidates such as Mr. Trump for using anti-Muslim rhetoric that betrayed American values.

“When politicians insult Muslims ... that doesn’t make us safer,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd in the House of Representatives chamber. “It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals.”

The president was greeted with cheers of “O-bama!” from enthusiastic Democrats as he entered the chamber to a loud ovation.

He drew laughs when he opened the address saying he would keep the speech short so that presidential candidates could resume their campaigning in Iowa.

Turning serious, the president said, “We live in a time of extraordinary change — change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world.

“It’s change that can broaden opportunity or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”

Signaling he has no intentions of being a lame duck during his final months in office, President Obama also cited criminal justice reform, trade and poverty reduction as areas where he thought compromise might be possible with Republicans in Congress.

He also called for lawmakers to ratify a long-sought Pacific trade pact, advance tighter gun laws and lift an embargo on Cuba.

The president also pressed for an end to “gerrymandering,” the practice of drawing voting districts in ways that gives advantage to a particular party; reducing the influence of “dark money” or political spending in which funding sources do not have to be disclosed; and making voting easier.

He also pledged to continue to work to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President Obama also said he had tasked Vice President Joe Biden, whose son died last year of cancer, to lead an effort to find a cure for the disease.

One of his biggest disappointments, the president said, was not being able to elevate U.S. political discourse during his time in office.

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said.

President Obama sought to contrast his more optimistic view of America’s future with those of the Republican candidates trying to replace him.

Afterward, the president’s address drew widespread praise from Democrats and mostly derision from Republicans.

Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Newport News, whose district includes portions of Richmond, praised the forward-looking speech and said in a statement, “By working together we can accomplish even more great things on behalf of the American people.”

He further praised the president’s long record of accomplishment.

“Under this President’s leadership, our nation has rebounded from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression,” Rep. Scott said.

Members of Congress enthusiastically greet President Obama as he arrives in the House of Representatives to deliver his State of the Union address.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Members of Congress enthusiastically greet President Obama as he arrives in the House of Representatives to deliver his State of the Union address.

“We just recorded the 70th month of consecutive job growth – the longest streak on record,” he added. “We ended ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ saved the American auto industry, reformed Wall Street and passed significant health care reform that has made access to affordable health care a reality for millions of Americans.”

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina also touted the president’s accomplishments as well as the goals he set for his final year in office.

“President Obama has put forth a bold agenda to create and expand opportunities for all Americans — from access to jobs, access to affordable health care and reforming our country’s criminal justice system,” he said in a statement.

“As we enter the final year of his administration, we say, ‘A job well done, Mr. President,’’’ he added. “Members of the Congressional Black Caucus look forward to working with President Obama during his final year to support an agenda that will continue to move America forward and create opportunity for all.”

Mr. Trump, in a posting on Twitter, called the speech “boring” and lacking in substance. “New leadership fast!”

House Speaker Paul Ryan said that the president’s “policies aren’t working. He didn’t have an answer for how to defeat ISIS,” using an acronym for the Islamic State.

In the televised Republican response to the State of the Union address, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley took her own jab at Mr. Trump and other less moderate candidates in her political party.

“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” said Gov. Haley, who identified herself as the daughter of Indian immigrants. “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country,” she said.

Responding to critics during the speech, President Obama said it was “fiction” to describe the country as being in economic decline. He cited a steep decline in the unemployment rate as evidence of that.

While acknowledging that al Qaeda and the Islamic State posed a direct threat to Americans, he said comparing the effort to defeat the militants who control swaths of Iraq and Syria to World War III gave the group just what it wanted.

“Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages; they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence,” President Obama said.

President Obama’s address to lawmakers, cabinet members and U.S. Supreme Court justices was one of his last remaining chances to capture the attention of millions of Americans before the November election. The next president will take office in January 2017.

The speech came as 10 sailors aboard two U.S. Navy boats were taken into Iranian custody. The president did not mention the sailors in his address. They were released to return to the United States on Wednesday morning.