Obama urges nation to fix broken politics in State of the Union address

US President Barack Obama concluding his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Behind him were Vice-President Joe Biden (left) and House Speaker Paul Ryan. In his most forceful call for the US to fix its politics, Mr Obama said "it's not enough to j
US President Barack Obama concluding his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Behind him were Vice-President Joe Biden (left) and House Speaker Paul Ryan. In his most forceful call for the US to fix its politics, Mr Obama said "it's not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves".PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

He admits failure to bridge divide between parties in final State of the Union address

With the closing words of his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made his most forceful call yet for America to fix the broken politics that has been such a staple of his past seven years in office.

Raising everything from Congress gridlock to growing polarisation between parties to the influx of money into elections, Mr Obama said the problem is a systemwide one and cannot be fixed by merely changing individuals.

"If we want a better politics, it's not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves," he said.

Mr Obama admitted his failure to bridge the divide was a big regret. "It's one of the few regrets of my presidency - that the rancour and suspicion between the parties have gotten worse instead of better."

As a valedictory speech, Tuesday's State of the Union address served as a reminder of the Democratic senator from Illinois who made history in 2008 by winning the presidential election.

Obama on...

REGRETS

It's one of the few regrets of my presidency - that the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. 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.

MUSLIMS

When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalised, or a kid bullied, that doesn't make us safer. That's not telling it like it is. 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.

THE NEED FOR COOPERATION

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. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.

Reactions...

STATE OF DENIAL

Tonight's speech was less a State of the Union and more a state of denial. We need a president who will defeat radical Islamic terrorism.

TEXAS SENATOR AND REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL TED CRUZ ON TWITTER

LACKING SUBSTANCE

The State of the Union speech was one of the most boring, rambling and non-substantive I have heard in a long time. New leadership fast!

REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL DONALD TRUMP ON TWITTER

The speech was full of his trademark soaring rhetoric that had often been missing from previous annual addresses to Congress.

He departed from the formula of past State of the Union speeches by going light on goals for the year and achievements of the past.

Mr Obama stressed that he still has much he intends to do this year, but said he wanted to focus on the long term in his speech.

He listed four key challenges. Apart from better politics, he said, the United States must give everyone a fair shot in the new economy; use technology to solve urgent problems like climate change; keep the nation safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman.

On those areas, he defended his record and hit out at the Republican party and its candidates.

On terrorism, for instance, he dismissed the tough talk from those on the campaign trail, saying his considered diplomatic approach was the better way forward.

"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," he said.

Not naming Mr Donald Trump, he called out the Republican presidential front runner's anti-Muslim comments, saying: "When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalised or a kid bullied, that doesn't make us safer. That's not telling it like it is. It's just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world."

One curious omission was gun control, mentioned only when Mr Obama said the US must protect "our kids from gun violence". A chair in the First Lady's box was left empty in honour of victims.

East Asia was given one paragraph as the President called on Congress to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal.

Foreign policy largely got short shrift. Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haas said the foreign policy part of the speech was notable for what was mostly left out: China, Europe, Japan, India, Latin America and the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

As he had done in all his past addresses, Mr Obama concluded his last speech as President by declaring that "the State of our Union is strong".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2016, with the headline 'Obama urges nation to fix broken politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe