President Obama deployed two of his closest advisers to defend his final State of the Union address, and they championed his shots at Donald Trump and calls for economic adjustments.
During his likely final address to a joint session of Congress, Obama landed some not-so-subtle jabs on Trump’s chin. White House aides said the speech was not crafted as a political document meant to influence the presidential election cycle, but the president clearly wanted voters to hear an anti-Trump message from perhaps the most powerful bully pulpit in American politics.
Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast near the White House, that Obama wanted to put on display an “alternative argumentation to rebut the prevailing wisdom in some of the public debate right now.”
But, by criticizing the Republican front-runner on such a bright stage, was Obama failing to live up to his own call for politicians and citizens to behave better when participating in the political system? “I don’t see him offering a different narrative or a different argument with being inconsistent with a politics that … rises above the otherwise unproductive nature of some of this,” McDonough said.
Welch: Final SOTU 'One of Obama's Best'
White House officials spent the days leading up to the prime time address making clear to reporters that Obama would speak about what they called the “gloom and doom” assessment of the state of America coming from the leading GOP presidential hopefuls, including Trump. On Sunday, the billionaire businessman called the state of the country “a mess.”
Fewer than 12 hours before McDonough met with reporters, his boss used rhetorical questions to draw a contrast with Trump and other GOP candidates: “Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?"
The president sought to deliver a more upbeat assessment of the country’s health, saying it faces "changes” — but noting the U.S. has been there before.
“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,” Obama said. “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.
“And each time, we overcame those fears,” Obama said, seeming to take a swipe at Trump’s calls to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, build a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country. “We did not, in the words of [Abraham] Lincoln, adhere to the 'dogmas of the quiet past.'"
Obama Slams Anti-Muslim Politics
Obama also criticized unnamed political actors who “insult Muslims.” That caused Trump to fire back during a phone call to the “Fox & Friends” program.
"He's living in a fantasy land,” Trump said. “I think this man is living in a fantasy land.”
Though Obama did not name names, McDonough did not quibble with reporters’ questions specifically about Trump.
Also busy defending the president’s last State of the Union speech was what some call his political right-hand man, Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
Obama’s No. 2 appeared on “CBS This Morning” just hours after the president described the slow-to-recover U.S. economy as the “most durable economy in the world.” And in another apparent shot at Trump and the other GOP White House contenders, added, “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”
GOP Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin noted two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, and criticized Obama for delivering a rosy assessment that failed to reflect that angst.
The vice president acknowledged Americans possess “genuine concerns, particularly [about] income disparity and wage stagnation.” The veteran politician pinned the roots of Americans’ economic anxiety on “blowback from the recession,” which White House aides frequently point out began under the George W. Bush administration.
“I think the president explained it fairly well [about] these international changes taking place with globalization," Biden said. "We have to adjust. ... This is a new period, and so there is understandable frustration, understandable concern. But there is no question, no question we are the most respected, most powerful nation in the world.”
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