Obama calls on Americans to embrace change
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US President Barack Obama on Tuesday told Americans nervous about terror and immigration that they should not fear the future, in a farewell State of the Union address that drew sharp contrast with Republicans.
In an election-year marquee event, Obama hailed a period of “extraordinary change” laden with both opportunity and the risk of wider inequality.
A confident Obama sought to cast himself as an optimistic foil to foes who warn the country is going in the wrong direction after his seven years in office.
While vowing to work to find a cure for cancer, accelerate the shift away from “dirty energy” and end the last remnants of the Cold War by engaging with Cuba, Obama said “America has been through big changes 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. And each time, we overcame those fears.”
With less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses – the first votes cast in the process to replace him, Obama berated talking points used by Republican candidates, saying “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction”.
He also lashed out at rhetoric over the rise of the Islamic State group, which he stressed “does not threaten our national existence”.
“Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” he said, in one of many veiled jabs at Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. “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.”
Tuesday’s primetime address was perhaps Obama’s last big opportunity to sway a national audience and frame the 2016 election race.
Around 30 million viewers watched live, a nationwide audience that may only be matched in political terms during the Democratic nominating convention later this year.
But it risked being overshadowed by news that 10 US Navy personnel had been taken to an Iranian naval base in the Gulf.
Senior US officials said they had received assurances the crews would sail onwards come first light, but Republicans have held the crisis up as evidence that Obama was naive to engage with Tehran.
In an unorthodox speech that tried to lift the country’s gaze beyond the next year, and beyond his presidency, Obama also tackled the country’s broken politics.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said in a moment of personal candour.
“There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
FRANCE 24's Gallagher Fenwick said Obama "took a gloves-off approach to the opposition that dominates Congress, saying that bipartisanship is no way to move forward".
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said in her response to Obama’s address that “the president’s 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," she said.
She also cited “chaotic unrest in many of our cities” and “the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th”.
Haley devoted part of her address to chiding rhetoric by anti-immigrant voices within her Republican party, notably that of Trump, although she, like Obama, didn’t mention his name.
Haley said the nation should resist the temptation to “follow the siren call of the angriest voices” during anxious times.
The daughter of Indian immigrants, she dismissed a call by Trump to deport 11 million immigrants living in the US illegally and to bar Muslims from entering the United States.
Haley called herself a “proud daughter of Indian immigrants” and said individuals willing to work hard and follow the law shouldn’t feel unwelcome.
Her remarks sparked a backlash from some conservatives. Ann Coulter, a conservative columnist and frequent television talk show guest, tweeted, “Trump should deport Nikki Haley."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)