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Idealism Shines in Obama’s Final State of the Union

WASHINGTON (CN) - Eclipsing mention of goals for his last year in office Tuesday, President Barack Obama focused his final State of the Union on the future of the country beyond his presidency.

Confronting new economic conditions and difficult questions of foreign policy, Obama spoke about the need to also properly embrace technology and find harmony in an increasingly discordant political climate.

Obama claimed victories in economic growth, health care and foreign policy, but assured the assembled members of Congress more work is yet to be done.

He mentioned specific policies - such as free two-year community college for students and a new commitment to fighting cancer - but mainly focused on broad goals of aspirations for the country.

An impassioned plea to reform the political system punctuated Obama's speech, as he called for changes to campaign finance and redistricting laws as wells as for an end to partisan bickering.

"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. It will only happen if we fix our politics."

Obama called the increased "rancor and suspicion" between Republicans and Democrats his greatest regret from his time in office. With some urging Americans to "fall back into our respective tribes," Obama instead encouraged Americans to stay involved in the political process even outside of election season.

"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," Obama said.

Aside from politics, Obama spoke about the need for education reform, making the system more affordable and better tailored to the demands of the new economy. He called for Congress to help him strengthen safety nets for people who lose their jobs while pointing to the Affordable Care Act as a means of protecting workers.

"Americans understand that at some point in their careers, they may have to retool and retrain," Obama said. "But they shouldn't lose what they've already worked so hard to build in the process."

Looking at Wall Street, Obama emphasized the need for a fair economic system that promotes opportunity for all, while taking shots at executives who would profit from wage cuts and layoffs.

Obama drew a large cheer from Republicans in the chamber after he admitted there are old government regulations on the books that need to be repealed. But the president quickly flipped to say big corporations shouldn't be making the rules that govern them, drawing cheers from the other side.

Regardless, Obama maintained the economy is humming.

"Anyone claiming America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction," Obama said.

One of the longest portions of Obama's speech concerned national-security policy. He detailed how the United States could lead without becoming a global "policeman," and insisted the country remains the strongest military force in the world.


"No nation attacks us directly or our allies because they know that's a path to ruin," Obama said. "Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead - they call us."

Obama encouraged Congress to take action on authorizing the use of force against Islamic State, promising to hunt down the group and other terrorists that would hurt Americans.

"When you come after Americans, we go after you," Obama said. "It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit."

Still, Obama cautioned Americans to not fall for grandiose claims of Islamic State's power, insisting the fight against the terrorist group does not constitute World War III.

"Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians - they have to be stopped," Obama said "But they do not threaten our national existence."

Obama mentioned the agreement struck last year with Iran aiming to roll back the country's nuclear program, but did not bring up Iran's recently reported seizure of a 10 U.S. sailors on two naval crafts.

While he spoke proudly of America's strength, Obama cautioned against interjecting the country into every conflict around the world and trying to nation-build.

In the box of chambers reserved for the first lady, Michelle Obama left a seat in the upper ring open for the victims of gun violence, continuing to signal the administration's commitment to tougher gun laws a week after the Obama unveiled new action on gun control. The seat stood out as one of the only open spots in the crowded chamber.

As her guests, the first lady invited Refaai Hamo, a Syrian refugee living in Michigan; Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down bans on gay marriage; Ryan Reyes, whose partner Larry Kaufman died in the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.; and a host of other advocates, businesspeople and veterans who represent a focal point of Obama's time in office.

Republicans generally remained seated throughout the address, as is common for the out party during such speeches, even while Democrats motioned them to stand up.

In the GOP's rebuttal to Obama's speech, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley painted a much different picture of the country than the president held up during his address from Washington.

Speaking from Columbia, S.C., Haley highlighted weak economic growth as well as foreign threats from terrorists as failures of the Obama presidency. She called for the country to avoid the "siren call of the angriest voices" and unite as her state did after a gunman killed nine people at a historically black church in Charleston.

While Haley touted the importance of immigrants in building the country, she committed to halting illegal immigration and pausing the flow refugees "whose intentions cannot be determined."

"As [Obama] enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels," Haley said. "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."

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan criticized the president's speech in a statement after Obama left the chamber.

"As usual, the president tried to manage people's perceptions instead of confronting reality: His policies aren't working," Ryan said in a written statement. "He didn't have an answer for how to defeat ISIS. If everything were as great as he said it was, two-thirds of the American people wouldn't say the country is on the wrong track. Success doesn't need hype; it speaks for itself. I just wish the president had leveled with the people - or at least with himself."

The partisanship he condemned was evident in the divided chamber, but Obama closed his address with an optimistic view of the country and its future.

"That's the America I know," Obama said over cheers. "That's the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That's what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That's why I stand here confident that the state of our union is strong."


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