Obama tells US to embrace time of ‘extraordinary change’ in final State of the Union address

US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. PHOTO: EPA
US President Barack Obama (left) is welcomed by Vice-President Joe Biden (centre) and House Speaker Paul Ryan prior to delivering his final State of the Union address.
US President Barack Obama (left) is welcomed by Vice-President Joe Biden (centre) and House Speaker Paul Ryan prior to delivering his final State of the Union address. PHOTO: REUTERS
US First Lady Michelle Obama (centre) waves, as Jill Biden (right) wife of US Vice-President Joe Biden looks on.
US First Lady Michelle Obama (centre) waves, as Jill Biden (right) wife of US Vice-President Joe Biden looks on.PHOTO: AFP
US President Barack Obama walks through the Colonnade from the Oval Office.
US President Barack Obama walks through the Colonnade from the Oval Office.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday (Wednesday, Jan 13, morning Singapore time) told Americans nervous about terror and the changing economy that they should not fear the future, in a farewell State of the Union address that drew sharp contrast with Republicans.

In an election-year marquee event, Mr Obama hailed a period of “extraordinary change” laden with both opportunity and the risk of wider inequality.  

A confident Mr Obama sought to cast himself as an optimistic foil to foes who warn the country is going in the wrong direction after his seven years in office.

While vowing to work to find a cure for cancer, accelerate the shift away from “dirty energy” and end the last remnants of the Cold War by engaging with Cuba, Mr Obama said “America has been through big changes before”. 

“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. And each time, we overcame those fears.”

With less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses – the first votes cast in the process to replace him, Mr Obama berated talking points used by Republican candidates, saying “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”

He also lashed out at rhetoric over the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, which he admitted poses an “enormous danger.” He urged Congress to pass authorisations to use military force against ISIS.

But he emphasised: “They do not threaten our national existence.”  “Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” he said.  “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.”  

Tuesday’s prime-time address was perhaps Mr Obama’s last big opportunity to sway a national audience and frame the 2016 election race.    

Around 30 million viewers are expected to watch live, a nationwide audience that may only be matched in political terms during the Democratic nominating convention later this year. But it risked being overshadowed by news that 10 US Navy personnel have been taken to an Iranian naval base in the Gulf.

Senior US officials said they had received assurances the crews would sail onwards come first light, but Republicans have held the crisis up as evidence that  Mr Obama was naive to engage with Teheran.

In an unorthodox speech that tried to lift the country’s gaze beyond the next year, and beyond his presidency, Mr Obama also tackled the country’s broken politics. “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 in a moment of personal candour. “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is expected to say in her rebuttal of Mr Obama’s address that “the president’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 will also cite “chaotic unrest in many of our cities” and “the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since Sept 11”.        

The White House has posted the text of President Obama’s speech (http://bit.ly/1nh7MFI

Mr Obama also announced that Vice-President Joe Biden, whose son Beau died from a brain tumor, will lead a new effort to make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.

EARLIER DEVELOPMENTS (US Eastern Time, 13 hours behind Singapore)

8:49:53 PM

US Vice-President Joe Biden has entered the House of Representatives chamber ahead of President Obama’s State of the Union address, shaking hands with several of members as he arrived. House Speaker Paul Ryan, attending his first State of the Union in his new capacity, greeted the vice-president as he walked up the steps. “How’s it going Joe?” Ryan said.

The two men aren’t strangers. They debated during the 2012 campaign as the respective vice presidential nominees for their parties.  Also spotted on the House floor: Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Mr Obama, meanwhile, is enroute to Capitol Hill from the White House. The White House posted video on Snapchat of him climbing into his car, nicknamed The Beast.  

8:36:29 PM

With about 30 minutes to go until the State of the Union, social media traffic was heavy, with the hashtag #SOTU tweeted more than 171,000 times.

Other top hashtags on Twitter, according to social media analytics firm Zoomph, include #kimdavis, referring to the woman who was jailed last year over the same-sex marriage license controversy but then invited to the speech. Also in the mix were #tcot, referring to “Top Conservatives on Twitter” and #P2, a hashtag for progressives. 

Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson took to Twitter to criticise Mr Obama for speaking while American military members were being held in Iran.

“When President Obama takes the stage tonight, there will still be 10 United States military members being held captive by Iran,” Mr Carson tweeted. 

8:26:15 PM

President Barack Obama has no plans to speak about the Iranian seizure of US Navy sailors in his final State of the Union address, CNN reported Tuesday. “There are no plans to address this issue,” White House communications director Jen Psaki said in a CNN interview. “He’s tracking this closely, he’s following this closely but the State of the Union will not be about this issue.”  

The president will, however, “absolutely” tout the nuclear deal he reached with Iran and other world powers last year, she said.  In the latest development on the seizure, a US defence official said plans were in place for Iran to return the 10 sailors to a US Navy vessel in international waters early on Wednesday.

7:52:40 PM

In the latest teaser leading up his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama touted his record on the economy and health care. “More than 14 million jobs, nearly 18 million people now with health coverage – together, we’ve pulled ourselves out of yesterday’s crisis to put us on a stronger course for tomorrow,” Mr Obama said in the message posted at www.whitehouse.gov.  

Still, Mr Obama said his speech will stay focused on the future.

“Tonight I’ll lay out a vision for an economy that’s even stronger, a country that’s safer, and a union that’s more perfect. “Because with one year left in my presidency, I’m still fired up and ready to go.”  

6:59:43 PM

In the White House’s latest Snapchat clip ahead of the State of the State speech, Edith S. Childs, the retired nurse who coined President Obama’s notable “Fired up” campaign chant in 2008, is shown singing the refrain. 

Wearing a cream-coloured suit and pumping her fist, Ms Childs is featured on The White House Official Snapchat Story singing:“Fired up! Ready to go!” again and again.

Ms Childs will be a special guest of First Lady Michelle Obama.

06:43:51 PM

President Barack Obama is set to tell Americans on Tuesday that while the country faces extraordinary change, the nation can overcome the challenges it faces if Americans come together, the White House said.

“It will only happen if we fix our politics,” Mr Obama will say, according to excerpts of his State of the Union address provided by the White House. “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,”will say. 

6:16:53 PM 

Mr Obama made a brief appearance on Facebook on Tuesday as he finalised the text of his last State of the Union address.

The President, sitting at his desk, said he was making last-minute changes and added touches to his speech. "There's a lot of work that still needs to be done," he said, adding that he wanted to make sure that the American people understood his proposals. "We've got some big choices ahead," he said.

6:06:01 PM

Hardly a quiet few hours for the White House in the run up to President Obama's swan song State of the Union address later on Tuesday.

As the President goes through his final preparations for the speech:

- Iran has taken 10 sailors aboard two US Navy boats into custody, although Iran has told the United States that the crew members will be "promptly" returned, US officials said.

- And at least 145 congressional Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, are condemning the Obama administration's immigrant deportation efforts.

6:00:01 PM

Ahead of his final State of the State speech, the White House tweeted that President Obama would share a few thoughts live on Facebook before the event.

Mr Obama's speech before a joint session of Congress is scheduled for 9pm ET (10am Singapore time on Wednesday).

Meanwhile, indie rock band EL VY was gearing up for the pre-speech performance at 7.45pm ET in the chamber. The White House posted clips of the band's warm up on Snapchat.

3:59:38 PM

Mr Obama will talk about the prospects for self-driving cars in his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, according to government officials, the first time the President has used the annual speech to tackle an important issue facing the auto and technology industries.

2:27:44 PM

Millions of Americans were discussing President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address on Tuesday on top social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, debating anticipated speech topics such as gun control, terrorism and healthcare.

2:05:14 PM

President Obama voiced regret for failing to unite Washington since taking office on a wave of hope in 2009, as he prepared to give a State of the Union speech on Tuesday to launch his final year in the White House.

Asked about his inability to heal America's political divisions, Mr Obama told NBC's Today show: "It's a regret."

The President planned to speak optimistically about America's future in his speech in Congress, one of his few remaining chances to capture and hold the attention of millions of Americans before the Nov 8 election of a new president who will take office next January.

The Democratic President will give his final State of the Union address as campaign rhetoric for November's presidential election intensifies with candidates fighting over illegal immigrants, wage inequality and violence.

9:00:22 AM

President Obama said he could envision Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump giving a State of the Union address - but in a comedy skit.

In a Today show interview ahead of his final State of the Union address, the Democratic President was asked if he could envision Mr Trump, the billionaire developer known for his bombastic style, making his own State of the Union speech as president. "Well, I can imagine it - in a Saturday Night skit," Mr Obama said, referring to the NBC's long-running late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live. "Look, anything's possible. And I think, you know, we shouldn't be complacent."