Washington (CNN): Putting aside a sudden crisis with Iran, President Barack Obama on Tuesday night urged Americans in his final State of the Union address to reject the politics of tribalism and fear that have rocked the campaign to find his successor and to build a “clear-eyed, big-hearted” and “optimistic” nation.
Delivering his annual report to the nation, Obama did not name Republican 2016 candidates. But he took clear, implied shots at them nevertheless, particularly front-runner Donald Trump, as well as Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. America’s destiny, the President said, was imperiled by a political system festering in malice, gridlock and in the grip of the rich and the powerful.
Obama also took on critics who accuse him of weakening American power abroad and Republicans who say he is underplaying the threat from radical Islamist groups such as ISIS. He mocked the contention that fighters “on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages” represented an existential threat to America.
The President acknowledged that a torrent of change, technological advances and economic dislocation has left many Americans fearful of the future and anxious as social structures that have underpinned the life of the nation for decades fray. But he urged them not to fall prey to the periodic temptation that has emerged throughout history to alienate minorities and resist social change.
“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,” Obama said. “And each time, we overcame those fears.”
“We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before.”
Economic opportunity, security and a sustainable, peaceful planet are possible, he said, if the country could return to “rational, constructive debates.”
“It will only happen if we fix our politics,” he said.
In a way, Obama’s seventh and last State of the Union address was a microcosm of his entire presidency: He invoked a chorus of hope and optimism about America’s destiny and the transformative nature of change but was undercut by the poisoned political divides he has been unable to narrow — and that have even grown during his presidency. Then he encountered fierce opposition from Republicans who believe he has transformed the nation by eroding its exceptional qualities and thwarting the Constitution.
While Obama, in deference to his ebbing power as a lame-duck president, avoided the long list of legislative proposals that Congress has no intention of taking up, he strongly defended his domestic record, claiming credit for 14 million new jobs and a halving of the unemployment rate. He said those who claimed the economy was in decline are “peddling fiction.”
He rebuked politicians who draw congressional districts to protect safe seats and vowed to launch a national effort to secure voting rights, an issue particularly important to minority communities. And he named Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his beloved son Beau to cancer last year, to head “Mission Control” in a new “moon shot” to cure the disease. He told conservatives who deny climate change to “have at it” because they were defying the world.
Obama also vowed — once again — to fight to close the war on terror camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, renewing one of the first promises of his presidency that has been thwarted by Congress. He called the facility a “recruitment brochure for our enemies and was expensive and unnecessary.”
CAMPAIGN TRAIL RHETORIC
The first African-American president also offered a detailed rebuttal of the kind of politics that alienates people rather than unites them. At times, Obama was almost pleading with his audience to embrace the vision of hope and change that swept him to power and then was sullied by the bitter realities of polarized politics over a darker vision of America’s character.
“What I am asking for his hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter,” Obama said.
“But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.”
It seemed clear that the President had Trump in his thoughts.
“As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” Obama said, voicing a familiar critique of Democrats and some Republicans at the rhetoric of the billionaire real estate mogul whose populist campaign has taken American politics by storm.
“We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”
In the Republican response, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley also — after criticizing Obama’s policies — offered a repudiation of Trump, decrying the “siren call of the angriest voices.” (CNN’s Stephen Collinson article)