Obama bids farewell to Congress, declaring presidency one of change

In last State of the Nation address, US president casts himself as victor on policy, lacking on political front.

US President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington January 12, 2016.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington January 12, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama delivered his eighth and final address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, sounding notes of optimism on the state of the union and calling for a better national politics ahead of voting for his successor.
This year, the speech – usually an opportunity for presidents to outline policy priorities for the coming year – largely amounted to a recounting of the Obama administration’s victories, as it sees them, on efforts to salvage and grow the US economy since the recession of 2008; leading the global fight against climate change; pioneering civil, human and gay rights at home and abroad; and reshaping America’s role in the world away from one of policeman.
In remarks expectedly light on foreign policy, Obama asserted that debate over his presidency’s effect on American leadership had produced a political distortion.
“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period,” he said. “It’s not even close.”
“I know this is a dangerous time,” he continued, “but that’s not primarily because of some looming superpower out there, and certainly not because of diminished American strength. In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.”
The US president added: “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”
Terrorist organizations, diffuse or centralized, pose a serious threat to citizens of the United States but “do not threaten our national existence,” he said.
Addressing the rancorous debate among candidates for the Republican nomination for president on the effects of the Syrian crisis, Obama said that referring to the fight against Islamic State as “World War III” was playing into the organization’s hands.
“That is the story ISIL [Islamic State] wants to tell,” Obama said. “That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.
We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions.
“We just need to call them what they are,” he added: “Killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.”
In his shortest State of the Union address, Obama did not mention progress in relations with Israel during his two terms in office. But he did devote two sentences to the Iran nuclear deal, which he hailed as the result “principled diplomacy.”
“As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war,” he said.
The tone of the address was intended to print Obama’s mark on the 2016 presidential campaign, in which Republican candidates appear keen to roll back virtually all of his accomplishments – victories he believes are consistent with American values and spirit.
But Obama also addressed one of the “few regrets” of his presidency, as he characterized it: “That the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.
“Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens,” he said. “It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America.
“Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us,” he continued.
When first campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Obama, then a first-term senator, promised a White House that would deliver change– not just from vexing policy ruts, but from Washington politics as the US had come to know it, and still knows it today.
He addressed that promise of change on Tuesday night, effectively casting himself as victorious on the policy front, and lacking on the politics front.
“I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people,” he concluded, with applause – from Democrats.
“And that’s why I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong.”