In his final State of the Union address, President Obama outlined his vision for the future of the country, touting his accomplishments during his two terms in office and asking to "fix our politics."
“For my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to just talk about the next year. I want to focus on the next five years, the next ten years, and beyond. I want to focus on our future,” he said.
"The future we want, all of us 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," he said. "It will only happen if we fix our politics."
The president’s final State of the Union comes as much of the political world focuses on this year’s presidential election. Though he made no direct reference to specific candidates, Obama alluded to what some would call the divisive rhetoric used by Republicans on the campaign trail, warning of "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."
"We need to reject any politics, any politics that targets people because of race or religion. Let me just say this: This is not matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith," he said.
The president also challenged those who say America's standing in the world has diminished.
"The talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air," he said. "Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. Let me tell you something: the United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. Period. It’s not even close."
President Obama reiterated his commitment to defeating ISIS, saying "priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks." The president criticized those who suggest ISIS poses an existential threat to the U.S.
"As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands," he said. "Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians, they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence."
Obama said such rhetoric is "the story ISIL wants to tell."
"We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions," he said. "We just need to call them what they are?—?killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed."
The president spoke just hours after U.S. officials revealed that two small U.S. Navy boats with 10 sailors on board were being held by Iran. The president made no mention of the unfolding situation in his speech.
Prior to its delivery, White House officials had described the president's speech as "non-traditional." Instead of providing a legislative to-do list, the president touted the success of his seven years in office, including progress made in the economy, on healthcare, and with same-sex marriage. Speaking to a Republican-controlled Congress, President Obama cited areas where Democrats and Republicans may be able to work together, including criminal justice reform and prescription drug abuse.
“So who knows, we just might surprise the cynics again,” he said.
While he stayed away from introducing new legislative proposals, the president did urge Congress to take action in three measures -- authorizing the use of military force against ISIL, approving an Asia-Pacific trade deal and lifting the Cuban trade embargo. Additionally, the president announced he was tasking Vice President Joe Biden with spearheading a new initiative in an attempt to cure cancer.
Reflecting on his two terms in office, the president shared one of the regrets of his presidency, saying "that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."
As he started his final State of the Union speech, President Obama said he would be brief, joking that the 2016 candidates in the audience needed to get back on the campaign trail.
"Tonight marks the eighth year I’ve come here to report on the State of the Union. And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it a little shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa," the president said to laughter.
Two presidential candidates – Senators Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bernie Sanders – attended the president’s State of the Union address. Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who are both able to attend the State of the Union, were not in the audience.
The president's speech clocked in at just under one hour. A White House official expected the speech to be the president's shortest State of the Union to date, but his 52 minute speech in 2009 will continue to hold that record.