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ANALYSIS

State of the Union address: Obama's few regrets

Washington: US President Barack Obama used his valedictory State of the Union address – probably his last major speech as president – both to defend his record in office and to seek to frame the terms of the elections to come, calling for optimism and inclusion over fear and division.

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It was the address of a man resolute in his belief that his failures in office have been more of communication rather than of commission or omission.

He lamented that he had failed to live up the slogans of "hope" and "change" that helped him win office in 2008.

Barack Obama  at the conclusion of his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
Barack Obama at the conclusion of his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. Photo: AP

"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, humbly conceding that, "a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide".

Obama used much of the speech to correct what he believes are misconceptions about America's circumstances as the Obama era ends.

"Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling a fiction," he said to cheers from the Democratic seats in the House chamber and determined stillness from Republicans.

He argued that the United States had the strongest and most secure economy in the world and was in the midst of the longest job creation streak in history, one achieved while the national deficit was cut by almost three quarters.

Barack Obama called not for politics of general agreement, but of civilised debate and a willingness to compromise.
Barack Obama called not for politics of general agreement, but of civilised debate and a willingness to compromise. Photo: Bloomberg

Fact checkers soon backed his claims.

Nonetheless, he said, Americans rightly feel anxious about their security because of the impact of globalisation and technological change on the economy, and in particular on  employment.

President Barack Obama waves from the House floor after the address.
President Barack Obama waves from the House floor after the address. Photo: AP

And this was where he turned to the heated rhetoric that has marked the campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who loomed large in the speech despite never being named.

"America has been through big changes before – wars and depression, the influx of immigrants … 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.

Each time, said Obama – quoting Lincoln – America refused to adhere to the "dogmas of the quiet past".

Similarly Obama ridiculed the Republican rejection of climate science, drawing mocking cheers from Democratic benches when he said, "Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn't deny Sputnik was up there. We didn't argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon."

Speaking beyond the chamber and beyond even partisan politics Obama sought to again explain his strategy in the Middle East.

And in even more trenchant tones he rejected the narrative that has been adopted as orthodoxy among Republican presidential candidates that America is weak before its terrorist enemies.

"I told you earlier 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. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined."

Obama argued that while groups like Islamic State presented real danger to Americans, they did not present an existential threat to America.

Again he returned to the language of Donald Trump. "When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalised, or a kid bullied, that doesn't make us safer … It diminishes us in the eyes of the world … it betrays who we are as a country."

Obama called not for a politics of general agreement, but one of civilised debate and a willingness to compromise and an effort to reform political structures that benefited wealth donors over everyday voters.

This, he said in conclusion, would best reflect a nation he knew to be clear-eyed, big-hearted and optimistic.

As Democrats rose as one with thunderous applause, Republicans beat a path to the exits.

One of the fastest on his feet Senator Marco Rubio, the man who much of the Republican Washington establishment hopes will make the next State of the Union address. 

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch didn't resist, quickly tweeting his view of the speech: "divorced from reality".

But one of the most shared of all #SOTU tweets was Obama's own, inviting people to tune in.

 

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