Obama Defends Tolerance, Accomplishments in Final State of the Union

Obama final state of the union
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, is greeted by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at his final State of the Union address. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address on Tuesday night, devoting much of it to touting the country's progress since the Great Recession of the last decade, reassuring Americans about ISIS, calling for greater racial and religious tolerance and lamenting the broken political system.

With just over a year left in office, Obama's gait and demeanor seemed peppier than in years past, a mood that might have been reflected in the appearance of the First Lady who shifted from a somber gray dress in 2015 to a bright yellow for this year's address. Obama at times had a wistful air as he nears the end of perhaps the most remarkable rise in American politics from an Illinois state Senator 12 years ago to becoming the first African-American president and to being reelected. He is the only president since Dwight Eisenhower to be elected by more than 50 percent twice. Obama has also presided over devastating Democratic losses in Congress and around the country after having entered office with substantial majorities in 2009.

Throughout the address, Obama waxed optimistic about the country's future and was boastful about its present: "Let me start with the economy, and a basic fact: the United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world." He even touted $2 a gallon gas.

Having presided over the death of Osama Bin Laden and the rise of ISIS, Obama insisted that the militants, while deadly, did not constitute an existential threat to the U.S. "But as we focus on destroying ISIL," Obama declared, "over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands." He said the U.S. was pursuing the right course against ISIL and again urged Congress to vote on the issue.

In a broader sense, Obama portrayed an America that is the unrivaled leader of the world. Despite challenges from Russia, which has annexed Crimea and intimidated neighbors, and China, which is dredging the South China Sea to build military bases, Obama said when "it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us." That may be true but it doesn't diminish that each has taken a more aggressive military posture on his watch.

As is the case with all State of the Union addresses, Obama offered new proposals, most notably a new $200 million fund to combat cancer. He put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of it, noting that he had said last fall that "a moonshot" effort could defeat cancer. The vice president's son, Beau, died of cancer in 2015.

He also fought for old ones including the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.

The president's comments also seemed to be mindful of the politically charged intersection of immigration and security. At a time when Donald Trump has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, the president seemed to take aim the presidential contender: "That's why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn't a matter of political correctness. It's a matter of understanding what makes us strong."

As always what was missing from the speech was telling. Gone was the usual vow to protect Israel. There was no mention of North Korea which recently conducted a nuclear test. But there was bragging about diplomatic relations with Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran.

The president devoted a significant portion of the address to climate change, a reflection of the growing importance of this issue to holding the Democratic coalition together. Much of the deepest hemorrhaging in Democratic ranks have come in coal producing states like West Virginia and Kentucky. Republicans sat stonily silent while Democrats cheered Obama's touting of a climate change and his proposals for more subsidies for clean energy.

Indeed throughout the night, while Obama plead for bipartisanship, and even acknowledged his failures to fix the political system, the evening's event seemed to underscore the problem. The two parties rarely applauded the same issue. (Cutting red tape was a rare exception.) The stern visage of the new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, seemed a reminder that no matter what Obama's accomplished there are far fewer Democratic foot soldiers in Congress to help him.