President Barack Obama, standing before a joint session of Congress, urged Americans on Tuesday to ignore political voices telling people “to fear the future.”
Giving what was billed as his last State of the Union Address – even though some presidents also give one in the January when they leave office – Obama deviated from a traditional policy focus to hit more aspirational ideas.
Obama started his speech with a joke about the 2016 campaign and how several individuals in the audience were campaigning to replace him.
“I’m going to try to make [this address] a little shorter,” he said. “I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa. I’ve been there. I’ll be shaking hands afterwards if you want some tips.”
Later in the speech, however, Obama again seemed focused on the 2016 campaign but without the jokes.
Although he did not name candidates, many pundits quickly saw clear swipes at Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.
Obama urged Americans to ignore “voices urging us to fall back into our respective 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.” Obama invoked Pope Francis and Martin Luther King Jr. as alternative voices to follow.
“We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” Obama declared.
“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” Obama said. “That’s not telling it like it is; it’s just wrong.”
“Immigrants aren’t the principal reason wages haven’t gone up,” he added. “Those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns.”
Obama ended his speech by urging Americans to help “fix our politics.”
“Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention,” he said.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley hit similar notes in the official Republican response to the State of the Union.
The daughter of immigrants from India, which she noted in her speech, she is seen as a rising star in the Republican Party and a possible vice presidential candidate.
Haley urged Americans to accept immigrants like her family. Her speech also appeared to aim at the rhetoric of her party’s presidential frontrunner.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
“And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion,” she added. “Just like we have for centuries.”
Haley urged Americans to turn down the divisive political rhetoric.
“There’s a tendency to falsely equate noise with results,” she stated. “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.”
Appearing on NBC’s Today show the next morning, Haley confirmed that she viewed Trump as one of those voices she criticized in her speech.
“Mr. Trump has definitely contributed to what I think is just irresponsible talk,” she told Matt Lauer.
Beyond critiquing overheated political campaign rhetoric, Obama’s State of the Union address this year also moved beyond his earlier speeches by offering the most attention to climate change.
Although he mentioned the topic in his previous addresses, he spent much more time this year talking about climate change.
Noting that 2014 was “the warmest year on record until 2015 turned out even hotter,” Obama urged action to tackle climate change and develop clean energy sources.
“If anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it,” Obama said. “You 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 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”
“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” Obama said as he urged technological innovation. “We didn’t argue about the science or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon.”
Noting that “climate change is just one of many issues where our security is linked to the rest of the world,” Obama praised the efforts of the recent COP21 United Nations climate talks in Paris.
“When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change, that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our kids,” he stated.