Six years and 358 days into his second term, US President Barack Obama just delivered his last State of the Union address on January 13.
In his final year of his presidency, Obama did not look back at his past achievements. He looked forward. He focused on the now and the looming future. He painted an optimistic picture of America with a recovered economy and hoped for a better, kinder and more equal nation.
This was perhaps the most powerful speech that Obama has made and in studying his contribution to history, I believe this will be the speech that will define him both, as a president and as an American.
This was one of the best moments of Obama and it reminded the Americans of why they were blown away with the man who called for “transformation” and “change” with his sincerity and outstanding oratorical skills. And why they sent him to the White House in the first place.
He spoke passionately, at times bluntly and asked tough questions, attacking the contentious issues, lying out his wish list and taking swipes at the Republican presidential candidates.
Full remarks: Watch @POTUS deliver his final State of the Union address. #SOTU https://t.co/AOyWjdFk4O— The White House (@WhiteHouse) January 13, 2016
Here are some of the key points of his hour-and-four-minute-long speech:
He made a final plea to voters to bridge the divide between the political parties as he leaves office. And he acknowledged his own failure in changing Washington and politics into a united and cohesive whole.
“It is one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said.
He added: “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln and Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
He admitted that it was about the process not the people who are elected and change is necessary.
He said that many Americans were frightened and felt isolated from political and economic systems that seemed “rigged against their interests”. This is a direct hit at the Republicans who are playing on the fears of the people to get elected. He went so far as to label the bleak assessments of the country by those who are trying to succeed him as “fiction”.
Obama received a spirited ovation as he declared that the “United States is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period”.
He attacked politicians who are “blowing hot air” when the say the economy is in trouble. They are “peddling fiction”.
Then he got brutally honest and in a not-very-subtle remark went after Republican candidate Donald Trump and his proposal to “ban all Muslims from entering the United States”.
“The world respects us for not just our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith.”
He also went after Texan senator Ted Cruz, who has crassly and crudely stated that he wants to bomb ISIS to “see if sand glows in the dark”.
Obama’s response to that was: “The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer 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.”
“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inwards as a nation, and turning against each other as people?” he said.
“Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and for the incredible things we can do together?"
There was another unspoken aspect to Obama’s speech. There were symbols in the audience to outline some of the causes he has championed hard and long, for example, next to First Lady Michelle Obama’s chair, there was an empty chair to represent victims of gun violence. And there was a Syrian refugee, among the guests.
The president also tried to find something to offer the stone faced Speaker Paul D Ryan of Wisconsin as he acknowledged that both have the same goal of supporting a federal tax credit for low-and-middle-income workers. He expressed hope they might agree on the issue again.
“Who knows, we might surprise the cynics again,” he said, referring to the bipartisan agreement they had made last year.
Obama wasn’t the only way who criticised Trump. In the traditional Republican rebuttal response to Obama’s speech, South Carolina's Indian American governor Nikki Haley did not spare the candidate who is leading, both nationally and in her state in the Republican presidential primary.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” Haley said.
“We must resist the temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
But Haley stayed true to her party in offering a negative assessment of Obama’s contribution to the nation.
“The president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words. As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels.”
And she made a final pitch for her party.
“If Republicans won… we would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around,” she said, talking about the international agreement the Obama administration had made with Iran that lifts sanctions on the country in exchange for restrictions to its nuclear ability.
And even though Republicans sent a clear signal by picking Haley to calm the voters down after Trump’s hot headed rhetoric, it didn’t seem to matter to him.
Hours after the State of the Union, Trump was back in attack mode. Referring to Obama’s speech, Trump asked the audience in Iowa, “When did we beat China in trade? When did we beat Japan in trade? When do we beat ISIS? Do you ever hear a good story?”
So after the lofty, uplifting speech by the president, it's politics as usual in America.