Obama dismisses Isil threat in final address
Published 14/01/2016 | 02:30
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama confronted the climate of fear that has come to dominate American politics and made a plea for optimism in America's future in his final key address to the nation.
He said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) did not pose an existential threat to the US as he warned against talking up its strength.
And with veiled references to Donald Trump and others competing to succeed him as president, Mr Obama looked beyond his last year in office to the future of America and the "extraordinary change" that will come with it.
"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 reach," he said, "but it will only happen if we work together."
On the most significant causes for concern for the American people, most notably Isil, Mr Obama said the threat to America's way of life were overstated.
"As we focus on destroying Isil," he said, "over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pick-up trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped, but they do not threaten our national existence."
Speaking from the floor of the House of Representatives for the final time before Congress, the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet and joint chiefs of staff, Mr Obama struck a reflective tone at times.
He said that one of the "few regrets" from his time in office was that the divide between Democrats and Republicans had grown wider.
"There's no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide," he conceded, "and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office."
Mr Obama's calls for hope and cooperation harked back to the early days of his time in the White House, but he repeatedly acknowledged that most of his presidency was behind him.
"Because it's an election season, expectations for what we'll achieve this year are low," he said, even noting that the four senators running to succeed him as president were "antsy to get back to Iowa".
Mr Obama made several references to this year's election throughout his address, taking one of his final high-profile opportunities to rebut the claims of Republican candidates that his had been a failed presidency.
"I told you earlier all that 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."
Mr Obama appeared to refer to Mr Trump, the Republican front-runner, contending that "when politicians insult Muslims ...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," he said, "and it betrays who we are as a country."
One of the few policy initiatives Mr Obama announced was a "new national effort" to find a cure for cancer, to be led by vice-president Joe Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer last year.
"Let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all," Mr Obama said.
In a speech that was less victory lap than call to action, the president admitted that he would leave office with America still facing significant difficulties, but insisted that each could be conquered in turn and that "the United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth".
He concluded his speech with a description of "the America I know".
"Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That's what makes me so hopeful about our future," he said. "Because of you. I believe in you. That's why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong."
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley used the formal Republican response to Mr Obama's address to try softening the tough stance towards immigrants embraced by some of the party's leading presidential candidates, urging Americans to resist "the siren call of the angriest voices".
Ms Haley, the US-born daughter of Indian immigrants, said the country is facing the most dangerous security threat since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That was a reference to Isil, which has taken credit for attacks in Paris and elsewhere and may have inspired last month's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
"During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices," Haley, mentioned by some as a potential vice-presidential candidate this year, said in her party's formal response to Mr Obama. "We must resist that temptation." (© Daily Telegraph, London)