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Obama warns against giving in to election year cynicism

WASHINGTON — President Obama said the Islamic State does not pose an existential threat to the United States — and argued that overplaying its danger only reinforces the Islamist group's self-aggrandizing message — in a final State of the Union address that often sought to acknowledge Americans' fears and deflate them at once.

"As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence," Obama said, using an abbreviation for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS. The message, like many in the speech, seemed aimed at the Republicans who were seeking to replace him in the White House, many of whom have offered only bleak views of America's future, and the country's vulnerability to terrorists.

"We don't need to build them up to show that we're serious, nor do we need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world's largest religions," Obama said.

In this speech, Obama seemed looser and more conversational than in past State of the Union addresses. At one point, he ad-libbed an offer to give the presidential candidates in the audience tips on winning Iowa — where, indeed, many of the candidates, who normally would have been in the audience — already were. And he returned to the topic of gasoline prices — the subject of many past Republican attacks — with a line that noted how low they'd gone.

"Under two bucks a gallon ain't bad," Obama said.

The president used his final State of the Union address to pose "four big questions" about the future of the country, in an unusually broad and forward-looking speech that seemed haunted by the idea that he could be succeeded by the fearful, blustery politics of Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

"Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?" Obama said. "Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?"

Obama's questions began with one about the economy — "How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?" Another asked how America could solve technological problems like curing cancer and halting climate change. Another asked how the United States could avoid becoming the world's policeman. And the last asked how Americans could learn to reason together, giving up the bitter gridlock of today's Washington.

For each question, the answer was implicit: How should Americans tackle these things? By following Obama's ideas from the past seven years, even those that never came to pass.

"We've made progress," Obama said, in answering the first question. It might have been the answer to all. "But we need to make more."

Obama used the moment to reassure Americans — or at least try to — that worries raised about the economy and national security were overblown. "The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world," he said at one point.

"The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close," he said later.

Trump's impact on the 2016 presidential race — and the country — was obvious not just in Obama's prepared remarks, but in those of the Republican offering the GOP's official response. Gov. Nikki Haley, R-S.C., had prepared a speech that called for Republicans to respect and welcome immigrants, saying they could love American values as much as the native-born.

It seemed likely to create an unusual moment of alignment, on a night when the two parties are usually keen to signal their differences.

But Obama's speech began with a lighthearted jab at the many people running to replace him. Of them, at least two were in the House chamber for the speech: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, running as a Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

"For this final address, I'm going to try to make it shorter," Obama said. "I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa."

In the rest of his speech, Obama appealed to Americans to "fix our politics" by rejecting partisan distrust, trying to strike an optimistic tone while admitting — if only tacitly — that his 2008 campaign-trail vision of a more unified and hopeful country has not come true.

"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," Obama said. "But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates."

Mindful of the scant prospect for major legislative action in an election year, Obama avoided the traditional litany of policy proposals. He did reiterate his call for working with Republicans on criminal justice reform and finalizing an Asia-Pacific trade pact, and he also vowed to keep pushing for action on politically fraught issues such as curbing gun violence and fixing the nation's fractured immigration laws.

Yet Obama was eager to look beyond his own presidency, casting the actions he's taken as a springboard for future economic progress and national security. His optimism was meant to draw a contrast with what the White House sees as doom-and-gloom scenarios peddled by the GOP.

Republicans were largely dismissive of the president's address. House Speaker Paul Ryan, assuming the speaker's traditional seat behind the president for the first time, said Obama's "lofty platitudes and nostalgic rhetoric may make for nice sound bites, but they don't explain how to" solve problems.

Tuesday's address was one of Obama's last opportunities to claim a large television audience as president. However, the State of the Union has suffered a major dropoff in viewers in recent years. Last year, Obama's speech reached 31.7 million viewers, according to Nielson, down from 52 million for his first State of the Union and 62 million for George W. Bush in 2003.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Obama warns against giving in to election year cynicism 01/12/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2016 11:37pm]
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