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Obama's Speech Offers Optimistic Alternative To GOP Candidates' View

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Obama's Speech Offers Optimistic Alternative To GOP Candidates' View

Politics

Obama's Speech Offers Optimistic Alternative To GOP Candidates' View

Obama's Speech Offers Optimistic Alternative To GOP Candidates' View

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/462883501/462883502" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It was more vision statement than policy wish list, and it offered an optimistic choice to the negative view of the country expressed by the Republican presidential candidates.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president of the United States delivered a speech last night that was both sweeping and relaxed. He offered a State of the Union address that mixed a long-term vision with the defense of his record and a few snaps at opponents. At one point, he told lawmakers that, in this economy, the only people who are going to work the same job with benefits for 30 years were the people there in the House Chamber with him. President Obama offered a vision very different from that of Republicans running to replace him. Here is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: This was President Obama's last State of the Union, the last big set-piece speech most Americans will hear him deliver. And he wanted his take on the state of the country to prevail. He started with what he called a basic fact - the United States of America, he said, now has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. He cited 14 million new jobs, unemployment cut in half, the best year ever for the auto industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

LIASSON: But the president was quick to acknowledge that most Americans aren't as bullish as he is. Two-thirds of them tell pollsters they think the country's on the wrong track, and his own job approval ratings have been stuck in the mid-to-low 40s.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: And the reason that a lot of Americans feel anxious is that the economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the great recession hit, changes that have not let up.

LIASSON: Technology and globalization have given workers less leverage for a raise and companies less loyalty to their communities, he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama's speech was part defense and part rebuttal to the chorus of Republican candidates painting a gloomy picture of American strength at home and abroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: All the talk of America's economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth, period.

(APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: The president vigorously defended his approach to terrorism, taking aim at Chris Christie's declaration of a third world war.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages - they pose an enormous danger to civilians. They have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That - that is the story ISIL wants to tell. That's the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.

LIASSON: And the president explained his refusal to call ISIS Islamic terrorists.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: We sure don't need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world's largest religions.

LIASSON: Instead, we should call them what they are, he said - killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out and destroyed. And he called out Ted Cruz - without naming him - for advocating indiscriminate bombing of ISIL-held areas.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: The world will look to us to help solve these problems. And our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV soundbite, but it doesn't pass muster on the world stage.

LIASSON: And he seemed to be speaking directly to Donald Trump when he said American leadership depends on the power of our example.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: And that's why we need to reject any politics - any politics - that targets people because of race or religion.

LIASSON: That's not political correctness, the president said, it's a matter of understanding what makes us strong. This was Mr. Obama's valedictory State of the Union, and he was reflective and a little self-critical.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: It's one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have 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.

LIASSON: Mea culpas were a theme last night. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley delivered the Republican response. After a quick summary of the president's feelings, she said we need to be honest with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America's leadership. We need to accept that we've played a role in how and why our government is broken.

LIASSON: Haley also shared the president's desire to push back against Donald Trump, who continues to lead the Republican race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALEY: During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.

LIASSON: Haley has been one of the Republicans being talked up for vice president. She may have helped her prospects last night, though probably not for a Trump ticket. President Obama takes off today for a two-day trip to Nebraska and Louisiana. He'll be trying to give his last State of the Union as long a shelf life as possible. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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