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Obama Urges 'Better Politics' to Tackle Challenges

"Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens,” Obama told Congress and a nationwide audience. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

President Barack Obama used his last State of the Union address to prod both Congress and the American people, saying America’s political system needs an overhaul if the country is to successfully tackle a list of “challenges.”  

In an unique address to a joint session of Congress, Obama laid out a mostly optimistic vision for a United States, one he said should be followed long after he leaves office to provide “prosperity and security for generations to come.”  

“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. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.”  

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In his eighth address to Congress, Obama sought to strike a stark contrast with what the White House has described as “gloom and doom” talk from the Republican presidential candidates about the general trajectory of the country. He and his top aides spent the days leading up to the speech describing it as a break from tradition, noting Obama wanted to speak in big-picture tones rather than lay out a one-year legislative agenda.  

Hours before Obama ventured down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett described the address this way to reporters: “His vision … for the country in five, 10, 15 years.” But the president later said that blueprint can only be achieved if Americans unite to “fix our politics.”  

“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests,” Obama said. “But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”  

Obama, who raised $745 million and spent $729.5 million during the 2008 cycle alone, criticized the increased influence money has over the political system and called for changes. He also urged an end to gerrymandering,  the practice of drawing congressional districts to ensure it contains a majority of voters loyal to a specific party.  

Even as Obama called for a “better politics,” his likely final hour in the House chamber was peppered with partisan moments.  

The 44th commander in chief seemed to target hawkish GOP lawmakers and presidential hopefuls when he panned rhetoric that describes the U.S. as “getting weaker,” declaring America is “the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.” In one of the night’s more powerful moments, he repeated the final phrase several times as lawmakers applauded.  

But political differences were apparent as the president launched into the speech’s national security and foreign policy section, with some GOP members audibly groaning in disagreement when Obama intimated that U.S. enemies are not, as many of them have argued, gaining strength.  

Republicans remained mostly silent — and seated — as the president they have reviled for nearly a decade touted his stewardship of the U.S. economy and tried to convince what polls show is a public that has grown dour about the general trajectory of the country.  

Republicans appeared unimpressed when Obama took one of several veiled swipes at the party’s presidential candidates, branding as “political hot air” any “talk of America’s economic decline.”  

In making his case, he touted America’s innovative spirit, optimism, work ethic and “diversity and commitment to the rule of law,” saying “these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.”  

He described the slow-to-recover U.S. economy as the “most durable economy in the world,” adding “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” To support his claims, Obama pointed to what he called “the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history.” He also pointed to the new jobs created on his watch, “an unemployment rate cut in half,” and federal deficits he said have been trimmed “by almost three-quarters.”  

As Obama spent the past few days locking in his words, his top aides went to great lengths to describe their boss as more optimistic than ever that the American people are up to the challenges facing the country.  

In the address, Obama called this “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."  

He acknowledged that such changes will cause “economic disruptions that strain working families.” But, in keeping with his upbeat tone, he said the changes will bring medical breakthroughs and spread education to “remote villages.”  

“And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate,” Obama said, noting the country has faced eras of change before.  

“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 did not, in the words of [Abraham] Lincoln, adhere to the ‘dogmas of the quiet past.’”  

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White House aides said the speech was not written as a political campaign message, though they did acknowledge it was crafted to counter what they called “gloom and doom” talk from the Republican presidential candidates about the state of the country. They also claimed the speech was in no way intended to influence the 2016 presidential election.  

John Feehery, a GOP political strategist, signaled it likely would have little effect.  

“The president didn't break any new ground in his speech. He asked many of the questions that the voters are asking themselves,” Feehery said Tuesday night. “But he didn't come with any particularly pithy answers. I thought was rather a routine defense of his vision and philosophy.”  

Obama’s final address wasn’t all broad strokes and veiled political jabs. He also saluted GOP Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and other lawmakers who last month helped pass a year-end budget and tax deal, suggesting predictions of a thin legislative 2016 are premature.  

“I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse,” the president said, twice drawing applause from lawmakers. “We just might surprise the cynics again.”  

He even got Republicans to join Democrats in a standing ovation with this line: “I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy. I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there’s red tape that needs to be cut.”  

What’s more, many Republicans stood and applauded when Obama compared a new anti-cancer initiative to U.S. astronauts walking on the moon and announced he is putting Vice President Joseph R. Biden “in charge of mission control.”  

At the start of his remarks, the president promised lawmakers he would “go easy” on the typical list of policy proposals, but quipped: “Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty.”  

He then listed, to mostly Democratic applause, efforts to teach students to write computer code, “fixing a broken immigration system,” safeguarding children from gun violence — and Democratic stalwarts like “equal pay for equal work, paid leave, [and] raising the minimum wage.”  

He also noted Ryan’s recent remarks about tackling the country’s poverty rate, saying he would “welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers without kids.”  

Republicans wasted little time criticizing the president’s final address.  

About halfway through the speech, Ryan's office issued a statement criticizing Obama for offering only "lofty platitudes and nostalgic rhetoric" that fail to lay out "a real path forward to restore a confident America — we can do so much better."  

And in the official GOP response, South Carolina Gov. Nikki R. Haley said his “record has often fallen far short of his soaring words.”  

“As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels,” said Haley, considered by some a GOP vice presidential candidate. “We’re feeling a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities.”  

GOP SOTU Response in 2 Minutes 

Haley also criticized Obama’s defense of his strategy for countering the Islamic State, which he described as posing a “direct threat” to the U.S. but not a threat to “our national existence.”  

Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense aide now at the American Enterprise Institute, said the president made clear “his current approach is sound and it's not going to change.” The speech’s national security section, for Obama, “ensures a partisan legacy in foreign policy that even members of his own party will disavow as a true or lasting success,” she added.  

At several points, Obama alluded to his coming departure, saying Americans have “choices” to make about how they want to deal with economic and security challenges.  

Republicans seem eager to have that high-stakes debate.  

“Soon, the Obama presidency will end,” Haley said, “and America will have the chance to turn in a new direction.”  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT. Related: Obama on Biggest Regret as President 

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