With a few candidates in the audience hoping to replace him, President Obama tried to strike an inclusive and optimistic tone for the country in his last State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Obama said progress is not inevitable but the result of the choice to stick together, setting priorities, and a shared spirit of optimism. His tone was in contrast to the gloomy evaluation of the country now being pushed by the "Make America Great Again" crowd in the Republican primary.
"Our unique strengths as a nation — our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery and innovation, our diversity and commitment to the rule of law — these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come," he said. "In fact, it’s that spirit that we have made progress these past seven years. That's how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. That's how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector. That's how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops coming home and our veterans. That's how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love."
The speech's reference to marriage equality passed by without any of the buildup materializing about a square-off, with the Supreme Court case's namesake, Jim Obergefell, sitting alongside the first lady, and with Kim Davis among the audience. The Rowan County clerk famous for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples had been given a ticket by a Republican congressman — who admitted Tuesday he didn't even know she'd been invited by his office.
Obama started in on the Republican narrative by rattling off a list of positives for the American economy that Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump would take issue with.
"Let me start with the economy, and a basic fact: The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world," he said. "We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the 1990s; an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever. That's just part of a manufacturing surge that's created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years. And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters."
Obama said technology means the economy is changing "in profound ways," but he took a jab at Republicans vying for his job.
"Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction," he said to mixed reaction in the chamber. But the president didn't stop with the economy when going after the Republican worldview.
"All the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air," he said, "well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth. Period."
"It’s not even close," he said, three times. Obama added, "When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us."
And Obama was tough on the spread of anti-Muslim rhetoric, which has included a proposed ban by Trump on all Muslims entering the country.
"When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer," he said. "That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country."
He also spoke of a new initiative to find a cure for cancer, a project he likened to "a new moonshot," and said he's putting Vice President Joe Biden "in charge of Mission Control." Biden's son Beau died of cancer last year. Obama talked of further advances in medicine as well, saying we're on the verge of a cure for HIV infection.
The president looked back on his years in office and named one regret. "It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better," he said, outlining a list of ways to fix it, including campaign finance reform and ending gerrymandering of districts.
Mostly, though, he put responsibility on Americans to fix it. Obama praised the quiet voices of those who exemplify "unarmed truth and unconditional love" (a phrase made famous by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) that he says "will have the final word," including protesters, assembly line workers, dreamers, and more.
"It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is," he said, "and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught."
The president spoke openly about what life in Washington will look like without him, and his role in the country.
"It is not easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office," he said, "I will be right there with you as a citizen — inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love."
The National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund (the Task Force's political action arm) praised Obama's speech in a statement released by executive director Rea Carey.
“Tonight the president reminded all of us of our core American values of dignity and mutual respect — in what is a fiercely divisive political climate,” she said. “A climate that has included an unprecedented deluge of hate speech against LGBTQ people, Muslims, undocumented immigrants and other groups. He denounced the politics of hatred and divisiveness with the evidence of his seven years in office — better access to health care, millions of new good-paying jobs, the potential of a world without AIDS, more LGBTQ equality, and a pathway to equity for all. He championed the restoration of vital voting rights and the opportunity for a cure for cancer. An impressive record — and a strong foundation for his successor to build on, whomever that might be. With one more year left, much remains to be done to secure the promise of freedom for all people in this country — let’s make it count.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, giving the Republican response to the president, said Obama "spoke eloquently about grand things" but contended that his record "has often fallen far short of his soaring words." Republicans, she said, would do a better job at governing than Obama has done.
"If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we'd put the brakes on runaway spending and debt," she said. "We would encourage American innovation and success instead of demonizing them, so our economy would truly soar and good jobs would be available across our country. We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses. We would end a disastrous health care program, and replace it with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor.
"We would respect differences in modern families, but we would also insist on respect for religious liberty as a cornerstone of our democracy. We would recognize the importance of the separation of powers and honor the Constitution in its entirety. And yes, that includes the Second and Tenth Amendments. We would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around.And rather than just thanking our brave men and women in uniform, we would actually strengthen our military, so both our friends and our enemies would know that America seeks peace, but when we fight wars we win them."
She also, however, offered what seemed to be a shot at divisive Republican rhetoric, particularly that of Trump. "During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation," she said. "No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country."
That doesn't mean open borders, she said, or failing to vet refugees. "We must fix our broken immigration system," she said. "That means stopping illegal immigration. And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries."
See video of Obama's address and Haley's response below.