- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Frustrated by Republican presidential candidates’ attacks on his leadership, President Obama urged the nation and his successor in his final State of the Union address Tuesday night to “fix our politics” and complete his agenda of restrained American power abroad and income equality at home.

“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,” Mr. Obama said. “But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

With Americans giving Mr. Obama his worst marks ever on handling terrorism in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the president also tried to reassure the public that he has an effective strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, even as he pushed back against the suggestion of deeper military involvement in the Middle East.

“Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks,” Mr. Obama said.

He said the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, does not “threaten our national existence.” But Mr. Obama challenged lawmakers to pass a new authorization to use military force against the extremist group, saying it was a question of whether “this Congress is serious about winning this war.”

“Take a vote,” Mr. Obama said.

SEE ALSO: Obama defends health care law as Republicans look for repeal

But hours before he delivered the address, Mr. Obama’s intended victory lap to cap his presidency was overshadowed by reports that Iran had detained 10 U.S. sailors and their two ships in the Persian Gulf after accusing them of “snooping.” Some lawmakers called on the president to delay his speech until the tense situation was resolved; Mr. Obama didn’t refer to the episode in his speech.

In the Republican response, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley urged Americans to vote for the GOP in November, saying Mr. Obama’s record “has often fallen far short of his soaring words.”

“As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels,” she 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.”

Even worse, she said, “we are facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it.”

“Soon, the Obama presidency will end, and America will have the chance to turn in a new direction,” Ms. Haley said.

“If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we’d put the brakes on runaway spending and debt. We would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around.”

While reciting his achievements in bringing the country back from the deep recession in 2009, Mr. Obama also intended for his speech to be a road map of sorts for the next president. His primetime address came three weeks before voters will begin to choose his successor, starting with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

But Mr. Obama’s desired successor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is falling behind underdog Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in polls in Iowa and in New Hampshire, which will hold the first-in-the nation primary on Feb. 9.

And on the Republican side, businessman Donald Trump is leading a crowded field, much to Mr. Obama’s dismay. The president said in an interview earlier Tuesday that he could envision Mr. Trump as president only in a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

On the confrontation with Iran in the Persian Gulf, senior administration officials scrambled to reassure the public that the Iranian government had promised that the detained U.S. sailors were being treated well and would be allowed to proceed with their journey. But questions over the sailors’ detention again raised concerns about Mr. Obama’s handling of foreign policy, with the administration already accused of treating Iran gingerly so as not to derail the president’s legacy-building nuclear pact with Tehran.

“So long as our sailors remain in Iranian hands, platitudes about the state of the union from President Obama … will ring hollow,” Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican, tweeted Tuesday. “As commander-in-chief, President Obama needs to do everything in his power to liberate these sailors from Iranian custody.”

In a twist on the national-security front, Mr. Obama blamed “failing states” in the Middle East for the rising threat of terrorism — attempting to turn around the argument of his critics, who say Mr. Obama is at fault for allowing nations such as Libya and Syria to collapse in the first place in the wake of the “Arab spring,” creating power vacuums for terrorist groups to gain strength.

“In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states,” the president said. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

Mr. Obama didn’t offer any new strategies for defeating ISIL, but pushed back against criticism that America’s global leadership isn’t respected.

“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period,” he said. “It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.”

Referring to GOP presidential candidates, Mr. Obama said the solution to various international hotspots “needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians.”

“That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage,” he said. “Leadership means a wise application of military power. We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”

The president promoted his “smarter approach” of mobilizing allies and ensuring “other countries pull their own weight.”

And Mr. Obama vowed again to try to close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, calling it a recruiting tool for extremists.

Mindful of Mr. Trump’s call to bar Muslim immigrants from the U.S. temporarily, Mr. Obama said the country must “reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”

“This isn’t a matter of political correctness,” he said. “It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”

The president mentioned gun violence only once. The White House kept one seat vacant in the first lady’s guest box in the House gallery to represent victims of gun violence, amid the president’s executive actions last week to expand background checks on gun purchases.

In an annual ritual to guarantee the government would carry on in the event of a disaster at the Capitol, the administration designated Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson as the Cabinet official who did not attend the speech.

Departing from tradition, the president didn’t give Congress a lengthy laundry list of policy proposals to consider. Mr. Obama decided in November that his final State of the Union address should “discuss the bigger picture and the choices we face,” said White House communications director Jen Psaki.

The move was mainly a response to Republican presidential candidates bashing Mr. Obama’s record, and his desire to help shape his legacy before he leaves the White House. For example, Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again,” has been grating on Mr. Obama’s nerves for months.

Ms. Psaki said the president has been “struck by the tone of doom and gloom and the terrible situation that our country is in.”

“We could not disagree with that more,” she said, adding that Mr. Obama wanted to strike a more optimistic outlook as he prepares to leave office.

But with his plea to “fix our politics,” the president’s address centered on an acknowledgment that he had failed on his promise of seven years ago to bridge the partisan divide in Washington. He said Americans, and partisans in Washington, must find common ground to solve the nation’s challenges at home and abroad.

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said.

Republicans noted that Mr. Obama called for “better politics” in the same address a year ago.

“President Obama rightly says we must ‘fix our politics’ — but that starts with leaders doing their first jobs first, instead of politicians claiming competence to run every detail of free people’s lives,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican. “The commander-in-chief’s primary duty – especially on a day when Iran detains ten U.S. sailors and a suicide bomber murders ten civilians in Turkey – should be to offer a serious plan for actually defeating militant Islam.”

The president said Democrats and Republicans in Washington don’t need to “agree on everything.”

But he added, “Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”

Mr. Obama said policymakers need to stop the practice of “gerrymandering” congressional districts, and to reform the influence of big money in politics. But he said the changes will occur only when the American people demand it.

Frustrated by the Republican presidential candidates’ attacks on his record, Mr. Obama also appealed to voters not to give in to fear, a not-so-subtle shot at candidates such as Mr. Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

The president did call on lawmakers to pass some of his remaining legislative objectives, including approving the free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership deal — opposed by nearly all Democrats — and bipartisan criminal justice reform. He also urged Congress to address a familiar list of his perennial priorities: to address college affordability, to approve comprehensive immigration reform, to raise the federal minimum wage, and to spend more on infrastructure projects.

Mr. Obama also said he was putting Vice President Joseph R. Biden in charge of a moon-landing-style project to find a cure for cancer. The vice president’s son, Beau, died last May after battling brain cancer, a tragedy that contributed to Mr. Biden’s decision not to run for the presidency this year.

On climate change, Mr. Obama called for Washington to “accelerate the transition away” from dirty energy sources.

“Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future – especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he wants “to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said Mr. Obama’s policies have made the U.S. weaker.

“His policies at home have bred division and left people stuck in a stagnant economy, and his negligence abroad has led to more instability and insecurity,” Mr. McCarthy said. “We need a new strategy to defeat ISIS and to hold countries like Iran, China, and Russia accountable to make America safe.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said he was “especially pleased” by Mr. Obama’s call for criminal-justice reform.

“Events in Ferguson, [Missouri], Staten Island, Chicago, and my home of Baltimore have forced our nation to take a long, hard look at racial disparities in police encounters and practices that continue to lead to the tragic deaths of unarmed African Americans,” Mr. Cummings said. “We must seize on the bipartisan consensus in Congress — and nationwide. For America to live up to its noble ideals, we must have a fairer, more just criminal justice system.”

Club For Growth President David McIntosh said Mr. Obama ignored the parts of his legacy that include “a near-doubling of the national debt, a mountain of new federal rules and regulations piled atop the private sector, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and a busting of even the most nominal caps on federal spending.”

“None of these improve the future for American taxpayers,” he said.

And the head of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Adam Green, said the president’s speech was “good, not great,” because he didn’t hit liberal themes strongly enough.

“The state of our union includes big issues that went without mention — from Black Lives Matter to abortion care to mass deportations,” Mr. Green said. “It was good that the president shined the spotlight on student debt, clean energy, universal pre-K, voting rights, and campaign finance reform — but he didn’t set big game-changing goals on any of these issues. He’s a 2008 president in a 2016 world where economic populism and the Warren wing of American politics is on the rise.”

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