In his final State of the Union address as President of the United States, Barack Obama appeared more like a man in the running for the job than somebody who will leave office a year from now.

Obama quickly dispatched immigration reform and other priorities he hopes to tackle with his time left in the Oval Office – even acknowledging they were unlikely to get accomplished while he occupies the White House – and instead seemed eager to challenge biting criticism from Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and other Republicans vying to be the next president.

Obama was at turns boastful and biting, confident and sarcastic.

Anyone who says the economy is declining is "peddling fiction," he argued. Obama characterized skepticism about science and reluctance to adopt technology as absurd. "When the Russians beat us into space, we didn't deny Sputnik was up there," he said. Claims that U.S. stature in the world is diminishing, he said emphatically, is "political hot air."

"The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth. Period. It's not even close. It's not even close!" the president declared.

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Obama’s quick remarks about issues important to the Latino community like immigration were met with a exasperation from Hispanic groups.

“The State of the Union needs to be more than just political theater,” the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) said in a press release. “Latinos and all Americans continue to wait for words to be turned into action on the key issues affecting their day-to-day lives. We need progress on policies that will improve the schools our students attend, create more job opportunities, bring the immigrant community out of the shadows and ensure the right to vote is accessible for all.”

The president's final turn at the Congressional podium was his most high-profile entry yet into the race to succeed him. After largely begging off the day-to-day skirmishes in the raucous contest, Obama showed he was more than ready to defend his record and happy to use one of his last chances to seize America's attention to show Democrats how he thinks it should be done.

Obama has more than his party's interest at heart. 

His legacy will be shaped by whether Americans choose a Democrat to succeed him and cement his signature heath care law, environmental policies and immigration programs. Democrat Hillary Clinton has tried to put some distance between her campaign and the president — often saying she's not running for his third term. That has at times left Obama as his own best defender.

The White House had billed Obama's speech as a rethinking of the genre, and it delivered.

While he all but acknowledged the fact that immigration reform, raising the minimum wage and tightening gun laws were not likely to happen under his administration, Obama did highlight a few possible proposals with better chances — criminal justice reform and fighting prescription drug abuse.

"Who knows? We might surprise the cynics again," Obama said.

The flip comment was a reminder that the speech, like the president's final year in office, wasn't focused on Congress as much as on defending his accomplishments.

Obama took some clear shots at the cast of Republicans who've used him as a target for months.

He defended his handling of the rise of Islamic extremism and tried to temper anxieties about the Islamic State group.

"Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands," Obama said. "We don't need to build them up to show that we're serious, and 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."

With an expected audience of some 30 million viewers, the speech was Obama's first of two chances to take Americans squarely by the shoulders and make his case for a Democratic successor. Not until his speech at the Democratic convention this summer, will Obama likely have such undivided attention again.

The case he delivered was not new. The president and his aides have been marveling for months at what they described as Republicans' gloom-and-doom vision. White House officials have labeled it both inaccurate and bad politics. Some of his arguments echoed the case he makes to donors at fundraising events.

In trying to present an optimistic alternative, Obama's speechwriters were mindful of not taking a victory lap. Americans hardly share his confidence in America's upward trajectory, polls show. In touting the economic recovery, in particular, Obama risks seeming out of touch.

"The president's record has often fallen far short of his soaring words," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said in the Republican response. "As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels. 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."

But the president showed he was ready to rebut such comments — once Democrats pick a candidate and he is unleashed on the trail.

Until then, as he told his audience of lawmakers and candidates, he understands the hankering to get back to Iowa.

"I've been there," he said with a grin. "I'll be shaking hands afterward if you want some tips."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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