By Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — Nearing the end of his time in office, President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address Tuesday night to tout his record, hoping to frame the coming elections on his terms much as he did eight years ago when he seized the White House.
At times serious, at times joking with the Republicans who control the Congress, Obama focused on the successes of his presidency and what he said should be an optimism about the future rather than the gloomy portraits of the country in GOP campaigns.
“For this final one,” he said of his speech, “I’m going to try to make it shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.”
Here are five important takeaways from Obama’s speech:
Reports that Iran was holding 10 American service members and two U.S. Navy boats threatened to cloud Obama’s speech and his contention that his nuclear weapons deal with Tehran stands to make the world a safer place. Obama didn’t mention the incident, but aides said earlier that the U.S. was “working to resolve the situation” and was hopeful that the sailors would soon be released.
Republicans have been critical of Obama’s foreign policy: Despite a nearly 18-month campaign of airstrikes and advisers, the U.S. has yet to contain the Islamic State.
Obama reiterated his call for Congress to officially authorize bombings in Iraq and Syria, but some Republicans say they believe that could tie the hands of the next president.
And he sought to tamp down fears, saying that although the Islamic State represents the most pressing threat to national security, it is not a threat to the existence of the U.S.
“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth,” Obama said. “Period. It’s not even close.”
The state of Obama
Obama spent much of the speech reciting what he said were his accomplishments improving the quality of life for Americans at home and boosting the United States’ standing around the globe.
He touted his signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, as well as the resurgence in the economy after the recession, a global climate change agreement, a nuclear deal with Iran and easing of relations with Cuba.
And he didn’t shy away from speaking about the controversial actions he took on his own — on immigration and gun control — when Congress failed to act as he wanted.
In a departure, several guests in first lady Michelle Obama’s box at the address did not represent policy proposals, but rather sought to “personify Obama’s time in office.”
Obama did not mention any specific candidate for president by name. This speech was not designed to help his chosen successor, but rather give his party a platform from which to run.
Obama sought to convey a sense of optimism and draw a contrast with what his advisers say is a tone of “doom and gloom” emanating from the Republican candidates seeking to replace him in the White House.
While the Republicans on the trail have depicted his presidency as a failure that has made the U.S. less safe, Obama pitched his agenda as a success, arguing that the U.S. economy is on the rebound, graduation rates are up and more Americans have health care insurance. He said America’s standing in the world is improved and he celebrated Americans he has met as he traveled.
But Americans remain overwhelmingly unconvinced that the U.S. is heading in the right direction. Less than a quarter of Americans said they’re satisfied with the way things are going, according to a recent Gallup poll of 1,012 adults.
Obama tried to shake off a sense of lame duck status, insisting that compromise in gridlocked Washington is possible. In recent weeks, he and Congress agreed on a massive spending bill and Obama held out hope they could find common ground on his ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, criminal justice reform and efforts to tackle the heroin epidemic ravaging many communities.
“Who knows, we might surprise the cynics again,” Obama said.
But if Obama saw bipartisan opportunity, Republicans were eager to remind him about their differences. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was seated behind Obama for the first time, joked Tuesday that he was practicing his “poker face” but tweeted that since he and Obama don’t agree on much, it “might be hard to hide that in my facial expressions.”
Republicans didn’t hide their opposition, stocking the audience with administration critics. Among Ryan’s guests: two nuns representing the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order that is suing the administration, arguing that the Affordable Care Act is forcing their insurance to cover birth control. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who blames Obama’s environmental regulations for decimating the coal industry, invited a fourth-generation coal miner who lost his job when a mine closed.
Last chance for promises
Each year, advocacy groups bombard the White House with proposals they hope the president will mention in his State of the Union address. It took on added significance this time, since it was Obama’s last chance to act on a flurry of campaign promises.
He heard from those wanting to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rewrite the nation’s immigration laws and remove unaccountable money out of politics. Even those who said he promised to implement a federal mandate to label genetically modified food, called for him to act.
But Obama left many of those groups disappointed as his speech was less a traditional State of the Union and more a speech about his vision for the nation.
(c)2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria