State of the Union: Barack Obama sells optimism to nervous nation

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President Obama's 2016 State of the Union

WASHINGTON — With one eye on a sudden crisis with Iran, President Barack Obama Tuesday warned Americans in his final State of the Union address to reject the politics of fear that have coursed through the race to find the successor who will assume his powers in a year’s time.

Taking stock in his annual report, Obama argued that the nation had made great progress since he took office amid the worst economic recession for generations and had a future of great promise. But while he doesn’t mention 2016 front-runner Donald Trump, Obama, in a swipe at the doom-laden rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates, said that destiny was only within reach if America fixes its polarized politics and rejects a periodic temptation that has emerged throughout history to alienate minorities and resist social change.

“Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control,” Obama said, according to prepared remarks. “And each time, we overcame those fears.”

“We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before.”

Economic opportunity, security and a sustainable, peaceful planet are possible, he said, if the country could return to “rational, constructive debates.”

“It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

Obama’s remarks amounted to a clear implied shot at Republicans, especially Trump, who has vowed to build a wall on the Mexican border and proposed a temporary halt to the entry of Muslims into the country amid rising fears of terrorism on the U.S. mainland.

Iran crisis

The President pressed ahead with the address despite a fast moving diplomatic crisis with Iran, that erupted when the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard Corps seized 10 U.S. sailors in the Persian Gulf after they apparently strayed into Iranian territorial waters.

After several hours of frenzied diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN that the service members would be released “very soon” while senior administration officials said that the president would not address the issue in his speech — though would defend the legacy-building deal reached to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

The incident complicated Obama’s effort to counter claims by critics that the escalating chaos in the Middle East is the result of a deficit of U.S. leadership and emboldened Republican attacks by presidential candidates who contend his “weak” performance as commander-in-chief has opened vacuums exploited by U.S. enemies.

In a way, Obama’s final State of the Union address was a microcosm of his entire presidency: involving a chorus of hope and optimism about America’s destiny and the transformative nature of change, undercut by the poisoned political divides he has been unable to narrow, and fierce opposition from Republicans who believe he has transformed the nation in a way that waters down its exceptional qualities and thwarted the Constitution. Meanwhile a foreign policy crisis raging in the Middle East underscored the struggles Obama has had to impose U.S. authority on an increasingly chaotic world that has challenged his core mission of ending costly American wars abroad.

The President has no plans to address the Iran crisis in his speech, White House communications director Jen Psaki said on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”

Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers immediately seized on the incident to charge that Obama has emboldened Iran’s aggressive behavior in its neighborhood by offering sanctions relief in return for a halting of its nuclear weapons program.

“This is the latest manifestation of the weakness of Barack Obama, that every bad actor… views Obama as a laughingstock,” Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz said on WRKO radio.

Another GOP presidential candidate, Marco Rubio, said Iran’s provocations were the result of having a “weak president” in the Oval Office. “Iran is testing the boundaries of this administration’s resolve. And they know the boundaries are pretty wide and this administration is willing to let them get away with many things,” said Rubio on Fox News.

And Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” that Obama should delay the start of his speech “to talk about what has happened.”

Upbeat president

The White House had long promised Obama will deliver an upbeat assessment of how far the nation has come since the crisis-shrouded first days of his administration.

The President’s address is one of his last chances to command a huge prime-time television audience and talk to Americans directly after a seven-year presidency shaped by a hard-grinding economic recovery at home and chaos abroad.

The speech will bow to political reality by dispensing with the usual long list of legislative proposals that Congress has no intention of taking up, but will press Obama’s priorities, likely including new pledges to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and to intensify the war on ISIS. He will also address the Iran nuclear deal, Psaki said on CNN.

Meanwhile, after weeks of intense campaigning, Obama is not expected to make gun control a centerpiece of his speech. But he will leave a seat open in the first lady’s guest box, in a stark reminder of silenced victims of gun violence.

Tuesday’s address before a packed House chamber will also mark the debut of new House Speaker Paul Ryan — a longtime Obama rival — on the platform alongside Vice President Joe Biden.

And as per tradition, one Cabinet member will not attend the speech. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has been named as the “designated survivor.”

Carson decries anticipated ‘rosy’ picture

Republicans agree with Obama that his presidency has been transformational — but in a bad way. They believe he has presided over anemic growth rates, wielded executive power on immigration, gun control and climate change to thwart the Constitution, is oblivious to the severity of Islamist terrorism and has engineered an era of declining American power in the world.

“At the State of the Union address tonight we’re going to be given a very rosy picture of what’s going on,” Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson told CNN. “And the fact of the matter is, you know, America is now at great risk. Our adversaries no longer fear us, our allies don’t trust us. We have to really bring our strength back.”

The GOP will highlight one of its rising stars, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who often is touted as a possible vice presidential nominee, in its official televised response to the President’s address.

Haley will paint an unflattering picture of Obama’s America and say the nation would soon have a chance to turn the page.

“The President’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words,” Haley said in excerpts of her remarks released by Ryan’s 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. Even worse, 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.”

Haley took a shot at Obama’s foreign policy record, saying a Republican president would “make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around.”

Haley decries ‘siren call of the angriest voices’

The governor will also highlight her personal story as a daughter of Indian immigrants and draw a contrast with some of the rhetoric currently on display in the primary campaign.

“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory,” she will say. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”

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