OBAMA LOOKS TO FUTURE IN FINAL STATE OF UNION ADDRESS, CALLS FOR END TO DIVISIVE POLITICS

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Gov. Haley's official Republican response also faults scapegoating based on race or religion, supports "stopping immigration" -- while Spanish translation hints at amnesty Haley never mentioned

By Miriam Raftery

January 14, 2016 (Washington D.C.)—In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama cited his administrations achievements and goals for his final term.  But he spent most of his speech focusing on “the next five years, ten years and beyond”, urging an end to divisive partisan politics.

Obama voiced hope for bipartisan support to enact criminal justice reforms. He indicated he will keep pushing to fix a “broken” immigration system, protect kids from gun violence and help workers by raising the minimum wage and fighting for equal pay for equal work, despite opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress.

Then he spoke about changes that have occurred throughout our nation’s history—and changes yet to come.

“We live in a time of extraordinary change,” said the President, citing medical and technology breakthroughs that can “broaden opportunity, or widen inequality.” 

He noted that America has been through big changes before, including wars and depression, immigration influxes, the labor and civil rights movements. “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 American under control,” Obama said, in an apparent reference to GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who has claimed he would restore America’s greatness while touting harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.  

Obama reflected, “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.”

The President then listed four “big questions that we as a country have to answer” regardless of who wins the election for the White House or Congress.  Those questions are:

  • How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?
  • How do we make technology work for us, and not against us—especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?
  • How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
  • How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worse?

He touted an improved economy that he called the “strongest, most durable” in the world.  He indicated that over 14 million new jobs have been created, while unemployment has been cut in half during his term of office and the deficit has been reduced by nearly three-quarters.  He said anyone claiming the U.S. economy is in decline is “peddling fiction.”

But he acknowledged that while more Americans have jobs, the global economy and technology that can automate jobs has given workers less leverage for raises, made companies less loyal to communities, and resulted in more wealth concentrated at the top. Those trends squeeze workers even though the economy is growing, making it harder for families to pull themselves out of poverty or for young people to start careers or older workers to retire.

He cited areas of agreement even amid the partisan divide in Congress, such as bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind and reducing student loan payments, but said college costs still need to be cut.  “Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year.”

Obama said Americans also need “benefits and protections that provide a basic measure of security…That’s why Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever; we shouldn’t weaken them, we should strengthen them.”  He called for mobile benefits for Americans short of retirement who lose a job, start a business or go back to school to be able to take their healthcare coerage with them. He also called for “wage insurance” to help laid off workers pay their bills while retraining for a business that can hire him or her, and also allow workers to save for retirement.

He praised Speaker Paul Ryan for interest in tackling poverty, stating he would welcome a serious discussion on strategies such as expanding tax cuts for low-income workers. He also called for “making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations,” citing big banks and hedge funds that have profited at the expense of others.

He also spoke out against the scapegoating of the poor and immigrants. “Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts. In this new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less. The rules should work for them.”  He promised this year to “lift up” businesses that are doing right by their workers and communities to  “spread those best practices across America.”

He called for reigniting America’s spirit of innovation to meet today’s challenges, citing past discoverers from inventor Thomas Edison to astronaut Sally Ride.  He then announced that Vice President Biden, who lost his son to cancer last year, will be put in charge of a national “moonshot” level effort to cure cancer, drawing loud applause from both sides of the aisle.

The President observed that anyone who still wants to dispute climate change science will be “pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 natiuons around the world who agreed it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”  Having American businesses sell the energy of the future, cutting imported foreign oil 60 percent has his administration has done, and cutting carbon pollution more than any other nation makes sense even if the planet wasn’t at stake, he added, then quipped, “Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either.”

Speaking on terrorism, he acknowledge that we live in a “dangerous time” but noted that today’s threats come less from evil empires than from failing states.  The Middle East transformation is rooted in historic conflicts and will continue for a generation, while major transitions are also underway in China. Russia is struggling to prop up the Ukraine and Syria, states slipping from its orbit.

“Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks,” said  Obama, citing ISIL and al Qaeda and those whose minds are “poisoned” by their radical ideology.  He said it’s a mistake to build up ISIL by “echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions” and instead said they should be called “killers and fanatics” who must be “rooted out, hunted down and destroyed.” 

He noted that the U.S. has led a coalition of 60 nations cu cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt plots and stop the flow of terrorist fighters including over 10,000 air strikes that have taken out oil, weapons training camps and terrorist leaders.  Forces trained and armed by the U.S. are steadily “reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria,” the President stated. 

But he said pointedly, “If this Congress is serious about winning this war…you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote.”  To build a lasting peace in areas such as Syria will take partnership with local forces and a global coalition, he added.

The President also called for lifting the embargo on Cuba and launching a missions to eradicate malaria, just as the scourge of HIV/AIDs has been largely stemmed.   He also reiterated his call to shut down the prison at Guantanamo that he said serves as a “recruitment brochure for our enemies.”

He called for Americans to “reject any politics that target people because of race or religion…The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith.” He quoted Pope Francis, who voiced similar sentiments in his recent address to Congress, then added that “when politicians insult  Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer…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.”

To fix American and provide opportunity and security for all families will “only happen if we fix our politics,” he said.  That doesn’t meet agreeing on everything, the President made clear.  But he added, “democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.” Democracy doesn’t work if political opponents accuse each other of being unpatriotic or if democracy “grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested,” he added.

The biggest regret of his presidency is that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” said Obama, who on a note of humility reflected that Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.

He called for an end to gerrymander Congressional districts so politicians pick their voters, instead of the other way around.  He also cited a need to reduce the influence of money in politics and make it easier for everyone to vote. 

“What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical, to accept that change isn’t possible and politics is hopeless,” he noted, but added, “If we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure.  As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path.”

He urged citizens to vote, speak out and “stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.”

He closed by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, who believed voices of “unarmed truth and unconditional love” will prevail.  He said he sees such people as he travels the nation, teachers, soldiers, nurses, workers, business owners who treat employees fairly, and new citizens casting votes for the first time. 

“That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future,” said the President, closing out his final State of the Union.  “I believe in you. That’s why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong.”

The Republican response

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley delivered the official Republican Party response to the State of the Union. 

Haley acknowledged the divisiveness that the President had discussed. “There is more than enough blame to go around. We as Republicans need to own that truth,” Governor Haley said. “We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken. And then we need to fix it.”

She laid out the Republican agenda which includes repealing the Affordable Care Act and opposing gun controls, but denounced those who assail people based on religion or race.

The daughter of immigrants, Haley voiced the Republicans’ opposition to open borders but also took a swipe at Trumps’ anti-immigrant remarks, stating, “Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”

She added, “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”

Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Congressman from Florida, delivered a Spanish language translation of Haley’s Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union. However he drew controversy after media reports revealed that he substantially altered her message, even suggesting amnesty.

 Diaz-Balart’s translation stated, “It's essential that we find a legislative solution to protect our nation, defend our borders, offer a permanent and human solution to those who live in the shadows, respect the rule of law, modernize the visa system and push the economy forward.”

Haley’s actual words were “We must fix our broken immigration system. That means stopping illegal immigration. And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries.”

View video of full State of the Union address.

View the official Republican response by Governor Nikki Haley to the State of the Union.

View the Miami Herald Politifact's comparison of Haley’s rebuttal and Diaz Balart’s Spanish translation.

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