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Obama's State of the Union Address: 'This Is Good News, People'

Addressing for the first time a Congress with Republican majorities in both chambers, Obama is discussing the economy, Cuba, cybersecurity, the Islamic State, and more.

by Jason Leopold
Jan 21 2015, 9:55am

Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP

President Barack Obama believes Americans are ready to "turn the page." 

"The shadow of crisis has passed, and the state of the union is strong," the president said in his first State of the Union address to a Republican majority in both the House and Senate. It was the sixth anniversary of his swearing in as president.

In an email the White House sent out to supporters about 30 minutes before his speech, Obama said he's "as fired up as I've ever been."

"We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many."

But now, Obama said, the time has come for Congress to shift its attention from war, terror, and recession.

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Obama told Congress that "we can choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come" by implementing policies that ensure income equality and "expanding opportunity" for all Americans. The White House issued a fact sheet during the State of the Union, "Middle Class Economics for the 21st Century — Helping Working Families Get Ahead," that contained a long list of policy initiatives Obama intends to introduce this year that he said will result in tax credits and higher wages for the middle-class. 

"Middle-class economics works," he said. "Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort? … The policies will continue to work, as long as politics don't get in the way."

Obama said he wanted to focus less on "a checklist of proposals" and instead "more on the values at stake in the choices before us." 

Yet Obama, sounding more like the Democratic candidate championing "Hope" and "Change" who campaigned for the highest office in the land years ago, set an ambitious domestic agenda that includes a wide range of domestic reforms on issues such as immigration that Republicans have already indicated they are resistant to. In fact, Republicans have already said they plan to repeal parts of Obama's landmark healthcare law and roll back the president's executive actions on immigration.

"Tonight isn't about the president's legacy," House Speaker John Boehner said in remarks in advance of Obama's address. "It's about the people's priorities: Making government bigger isn't going to help the middle class. More growth and more opportunity will help the middle class, and those are the Republican priorities."

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During last year's State of the Union speech, Obama told Congress that by the end of 2014, the Afghanistan war — "America's longest war" — would come to an end. The president made good on that promise (although Obama acknowledged that "fewer than 15,000" troops remain in the country). But now he wants Congress to pass a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) to wage war against the Islamic State (referred to by Obama as ISIL). Currently, the administration is relying on the 60 words contained in the 2001 AUMF that authorized the war in Afghanistan to justify the legality of its military operations against the Islamic State and elsewhere for the past 14 years.

"In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL's advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group," Obama said. "We're also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL."

Hours before the State of the Union speech Tuesday, the Islamic State released a video featuring two of its newest hostages who are set to be executed in 72 hours if demands for a $200 million ransom is not met.

Obama, who said he believes "we lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy," again used his speech to suggest that North Korea was responsible for the devastating hack against Sony Pictures, even though the integrity of the government's evidence has been called into question. The president said the US now needs to devote resources to combat cyberattacks much in the same way the government has waged war against terrorists, otherwise "we'll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable."

"No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids," Obama said. "We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism. And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children's information."

Invoking the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City — both at the hands of police — Obama called on Democrats and Republicans to "reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all."

Obama also delivered quite a bit of rhetoric during his speech.

The president said the United States respects "human dignity, even when we're threatened, which is why I've prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained."

That's not entirely true. Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a scathing report that laid bare the brutality of the CIA's post-9/11 detention and interrogation program, for which no one was held accountable. In addition, the United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a report last year that said certain interrogation techniques in the Army Field Manual — such as sleep deprivation — that the Obama administration now relies upon rises to the level of torture. Moreover, human rights groups and journalists have documented that the US use of drones for the purposes of targeted killings have resulted in the deaths of more civilians than combatants.

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One of Obama's major policy initiatives is shuttering the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. His administration turned the policy of indefinite detention into the law of the land, but Obama said the reason Guantanamo needs to be shut down is because the US has a "profound commitment to justice."

"So it makes no sense to spend $3 million per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit," Obama said, adding that he "will not relent in [his] determination" to close it. But he faces fierce opposition from Republicans who introduced legislation last week to block his efforts to transfer detainees and permanently close the prison.

Obama said he will issue a long-awaited report next month on "reforms" to the NSA's surveillance policies, which were disclosed two years ago by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and revealed that the NSA had been indiscriminately spying on Americans and citizens abroad.

"As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties — and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks," Obama said. "So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I haven't." 

Joni Ernst, the newly elected Republican senator from Iowa, delivered the GOP's official response to the State of the Union. She seemed to suggest that Republicans may be willing to work with Obama on domestic programs aimed at empowering the middle-class. But doing would be contingent on unraveling what Obama has long considered the centerpiece of his domestic agenda: healthcare reform.

"We see our neighbors agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs," said Ernst, a combat veteran. "We see the hurt caused by canceled health care plans and higher monthly insurance bills. We see too many moms and dads put their own dreams on hold while growing more fearful about the kind of future they'll be able to leave to their children. Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare. It's a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions."

Ernst also called for lower tax rates and more jobs and less government spending. But she said it's Republican proposals--not Obama's--that the president should support. 

"We're calling on [Obama] now to cooperate" and sign the legislation into law. 

The president reminded Americans that he has "no more campaigns to run." Republicans audibly expressed happiness, which resulted in the most talked-about line of the night on social media, an ad-lib by Obama: "I know because I won both of them."

"My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I've had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol," Obama said. "To do what I believe is best for America."

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold