President Obama, with an eye on cementing his legacy and countering the narrative on the Republican campaign trail, used his final State of the Union address Tuesday night to defend his economic record – and, in stark language, downplay the threat from the Islamic State.
“Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” the president said, arguing that ISIS fighters “do not threaten our national existence.”
The remarks on ISIS are sure to rile Republican critics who say the president’s strategy for confronting the group is inadequate – particularly just hours after ISIS was blamed for another deadly attack, this time in Istanbul.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the leading candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, tweeted afterward that the address was “less a State of the Union and more a state of denial.”
The backdrop of the address undeniably was election-year politics, though Obama is not on the ballot. Throughout the speech, the president took several implicit jabs at the GOP candidates competing for his job, and in doing so sought to shore up his own legacy.
His message to them seemed to be: The sky is not falling.
On the economy and on national security, Obama called the criticism “political hot air.” More broadly, the president sounded a call for “better politics” and bipartisanship, and cast the rancor directed at his administration’s policies as the product of an overheated political system.
“Let me tell you something, the United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period,” Obama said, to those who say America is getting weaker.
And to those who say the economy is just limping along, Obama countered: “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” He said America’s is the “most durable economy in the world” and one that has improved on his watch.
The defiant remarks were met with skepticism from Republicans in the audience. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office said the “lofty platitudes” still did not explain how to defeat ISIS and get the economy back on track.
In the official GOP response, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley challenged the president’s message on terror, saying the country is facing threats like few others in recent memory and the president is unwilling or unable to deal with it. At the same time, she urged Americans to avoid following the “angriest voices.”
On that, Haley and Obama had a common message. In his address, Obama returned repeatedly to a warning that the country faces a choice in a time of “extraordinary change” – between facing the future with “confidence” or with “fear.”
He decried politicians who “insult Muslims” or target people “because of race or religion,” an implicit reference to some of the comments made on the Republican campaign trail including from Donald Trump. And he made a reference to remarks from Cruz, saying the answer to threats “needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians.”
Cruz responded on Twitter, “We need a president who will defeat radical Islamic terrorism.”
But Obama delivered pointed remarks on the nature of the terror threat. He said the priority remains protecting the American people from terrorism, but went on to play down the ISIS problem.
“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,” Obama said. “That is the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.”
He also dug in on what effectively is an administration policy of not referring to the terror threat as radical Islam. He urged against “echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions,” and said: “We just need to call them what they are – killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.”
In a statement after the speech, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., accused him of “pushing these growing threats to the next administration.”
The president from the start was by turns combative and casual, delivering an unconventional address that avoided a detailed to-do list. From the outset, he said he’d “go easy” on the laundry list of proposals – and focus more broadly “on our future.”
“For this final one, I’m going to try to make it a little shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa,” he joked.
He also began, and closed, his address with a call for bipartisan cooperation on key issues, saying Washington “might surprise the cynics.” On issues ranging from criminal justice reform to prescription drug abuse, Obama suggested both parties can find common ground.
The president delivered his seventh and final State of the Union address as he faces an invigorated opposition in both houses of Congress and the prospect of his policies becoming unraveled if a Republican wins the White House in November.
His administration, though, is still trying to deliver on promises made since his first inauguration – most notably, the vow to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
He renewed that vow Tuesday, saying he will “keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo.”
“It is expensive, it is unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies,” he said, without saying whether he might resort to executive action to achieve his goal.
Despite vowing to avoid the to-do list, Obama did tick off several other final-year goals: including raising the minimum wage, doing more on gun control and pushing for free community college – a proposal left over from last year’s agenda. He also tapped Vice President Biden to lead “mission control” in a new national effort to research a cure for cancer.
Hanging over Tuesday’s address, aside from the terror attack in Istanbul, was yet another diplomatic dispute involving Iran -- as it emerged Iran was holding 10 U.S. Navy sailors after they apparently drifted into Iranian waters.
Obama did not address the dispute in the State of the Union, though Republicans pointed to the incident in renewing their concerns about the Iran nuclear deal.