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Obama's State of the Union Address: Back to Being the 'Hope and Change' Guy

In his final SOTU address, an upbeat Barack Obama touted his administration's past achievements but also made several suggestions for a path forward after he leaves office.
January 13, 2016, 3:10am
Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP

US president Barack Obama once again became the "Hope and Change" guy.

Just a few minutes into his final State of the Union (SOTU) address before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, a clearly relaxed Obama had already cited "change" half a dozen times.

"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," Obama said. "It's change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. 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."


Related: A Roundtable with President Barack Obama: The Cost of Education

The president, who waited until the very end of his 64-minute address to say the "state of our union is strong," touted his achievements, telling lawmakers that he successfully fought off a hostile group of Republicans over the past six years who sought to derail his major policy initiatives.

Obama noted that during his tenure in office he rescued the country from the brink of economic collapse, created millions of new jobs, signed a historic health care bill into law, and made major strides in combatting climate change.

Unlike previous SOTUs in which Obama called on lawmakers to pass his legislative proposals, his final address to Congress took on a more reflective tone. In addition to ticking off a list of his accomplishments, he called for "better politics" and "rational, constructive debates," and suggested a way forward to meet future challenges. It was one of the most important points in his speech, Obama said.

Watch 'The VICE News Interview: President Barack Obama.'

"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," Obama said. "But it will only happen if we work together…. A better politics doesn't mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That's one of our strengths, too."


Obama mentioned guns only once — saying that the country needs to protect children from gun violence — though a chair next to Michelle Obama was left empty to honor the victims of gun violence in America. The Obamas invited a Syrian refugee, a community college student, a Mexican immigrant who served in the US military, and the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriage in the country.

Also in attendance was Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She was not a guest of the Obamas; instead she was invited by Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio.

He also made a dig at Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump — "We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion" — urging Americans to reject the politics of fear on which Trump campaigns.

"When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn't make us safer. That's not telling it like it is. It's just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country," Obama said.

Obama didn't just take aim at Trump. He made a not so veiled reference to Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who called for "carpet bombing" the Islamic State on the campaign trail.

"The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and 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," Obama said.


Claims by Trump and other Republican candidates that the US is experiencing an economic decline is "political hot air," Obama said.

"So is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker," he said, adding that such rhetoric plays into the Islamic State's hands. "The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close."

The annual address was an effort by Obama to shore up his legacy and reconnect with the political base that propelled him into office in 2008. That the SOTU was scheduled early in January, just a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses, may have been an effort by Obama to avoid being outshined by the candidates who are campaigning to succeed him — and to shape the political tone as the 2016 race for the White House heats up.

Indeed, Obama used the word "leadership" eight times during his address. He talked about "American leadership in the 21st Century," which he said is "not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world — except when we kill terrorists, or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling."

"Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right," he said. "It means seeing our foreign assistance as part of our national security, not charity. When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our children. When we help Ukraine defend its democracy, or Colombia resolve a decades-long war, that strengthens the international order we depend upon."


That kind of leadership, Obama said, is what it will take to "shut down the prison at Guantanamo," which celebrated its 14th anniversary on Monday. Obama said it's "expensive, it's unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies." He vowed to make good on his campaign promise of closing the facility before he leaves office even though Congress is vehemently opposed to the plan.

Underscoring that point, Republican senators Cory Gardner and Pat Roberts issued a statement earlier Tuesday saying they planned to sit together to show "strong and unified opposition" to relocate detainees to prisons in the US, possibly in states represented by the lawmakers.

In the hours leading up to his address, the White House posted interactive fact sheets on its website highlighting Obama's record on a wide-range of domestic and foreign policy issues and blanketed social media with a minute-long, black-and-white documentary-style video of Obama in the Oval Office reflecting on the many challenges he confronted during his two presidential terms. Moreover, the administration also encouraged the American public to use social media platforms to discuss Obama's speech and his presidential record.

When Obama was sworn into office in 2009, there were two wars raging in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he ended (with, his opponents in particular would argue, very mixed results and has forced the administration to continue to keep thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan). While there was a drawdown of more than 100,000 troops, Obama also greatly expanded upon George W. Bush's war powers and set a disturbing precedent for future commanders-in-chief to wage war unilaterally. He has made indefinite detention the law of the land, expanded the use of armed drones in countries with which the US was never at war, created kill lists, authorized the lethal targeting of a US citizen abroad, reversed restrictions on the NSA's surveillance authority, and justified his national security actions by relying upon a 14-year-old, 60-word Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that was intended to weed out al Qaeda.


That same AUMF is currently being used to justify military action against the Islamic State — which Obama refers to as ISIL — and the president has been harshly criticized for it. However, in his address he said that if Congress is serious about winning the war against the Islamic State "and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote."

Voting, specifically voting reform, was a topic Obama also discussed in his SOTU address. He said the process needs to be modernized in order to "make voting easier, not harder," and added that he intends to travel the country this year to push for reforms.

In his first SOTU address in January 2010, Obama criticized the Supreme Court justices who reversed a century of law and allowed corporations and special interests to spend as much money as they wanted to influence elections. On Tuesday, he returned to the issue again and said, "We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics so that a handful of families and hidden interests can't bankroll our elections — and if our existing approach to campaign finance can't pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution."

Completing this work, Obama said, "won't be easy." But 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. 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."

America's "brand of Democracy is hard," Obama said. "But I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I'll be right there with you as a citizen — inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far."

Follow Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold) and Ky Henderson (@kyhenderson) on Twitter.