President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address Tuesday to call for a "better politics," warning that the deep partisan divide that has defined much of his presidency is threatening to erode the central virtues of the nation's public life.
Echoing themes from his first campaign for the White House nearly eight years ago, the president said acrimony in Washington has made Americans resentful of the nation's political system, and each other. With a tumultuous election underway to replace him, Obama lamented the fact that "the most extreme voices" are receiving the most attention.
"Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn't matter, that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest," Obama told the leaders who packed the House chamber at the Capitol. "It's one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."
In a departure from the traditional State of the Union address, Obama steered mostly clear of specific policy prescriptions before a Republican Congress that has expressed little interest in helping him advance his agenda, particularly in this election year. But he did say he hoped to work with lawmakers on criminal justice reform — an area that has received some bipartisan support — and he offered an impassioned defense of his administration's regulations to address climate change, calling to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels.
He said his administration would redouble efforts proposed by Vice President Joe Biden last year to create a "moonshot" effort to cure cancer, and he praised a recent spending bill approved by Congress that increases funding for the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health.
With an eye toward his legacy, Obama fired back at those who have criticized his economic policies. He noted a reduced national unemployment, a strengthened auto industry, and reduced federal budget deficits among his accomplishments."Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction," Obama said.
Yet he delivered a call for political unity at a time when Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed outrage over his willingness to advance change through executive action on immigration policy and, more recently, gun control.
"The president's record has often fallen far short of his soaring words," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said in the Republican response to Obama's address. "We're feeling a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities."
Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, said the administration would be remembered for broken promises on wages and health care. "Nothing in the president's rhetoric," Harris said, "is going to make Americans feel secure or convince Americans that he kept his promises."
With just three weeks to go before caucus voters in Iowa begin the 2016 presidential nomination process, Obama made oblique references to the election underway to replace him. Without mentioning candidates by name, the president lamented that the campaign so far has emphasized the nation's divisions rather than focusing on areas of common ground.
Several of the candidates seeking to replace Obama, including Sens. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent running for the Democratic nomination, sat in the House chamber for the speech. Obama started off by joking that he intended to keep it short because "I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa."
"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," Obama said. "It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said the president was calling on the nation and current political candidates to put aside "dangerous political rhetoric because it will stop us from achieving the great things that we can achieve."
In a sense, Cummings added, Obama "was speaking to the Donald Trumps of the world."
Obama said the future he envisions would only be possible if "we fix our politics," and cited the flood of money pouring into elections and the widespread use of political gerrymandering to control the partisan composition of the House.
That message may carry special resonance in Maryland, which is home to some of the most convoluted congressional districts in the country. The current boundaries, fashioned by Democratic state lawmakers in 2011, got another Democrat elected to Congress the following year. But they have also been the focus of repeated litigation, and a symbol of political self-preservation that has angered voters.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed an independent commission to take a role in drawing the lines. But state Democrats in control of the General Assembly have rejected the idea, noting that Republicans exercise the same prerogative to draw lines to their advantage in red states.
While Obama has met with resistance from Republicans for much of his presidency, this year's speech also emphasized tensions within his own party. Many Democrats are opposed to a trade agreement that the White House hopes Congress will approve this year, and others have spoken out against recent immigration raids approved by the administration that have targeted recent arrivals from Central America.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, dismissed that intraparty tension.
The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin was one of several in his party to oppose Obama's landmark nuclear accord with Iran last year. But the longtime administration ally cited several areas for potential agreement this year, including on mental health and drug addiction, energy conservation and overhauling the nation's byzantine tax code.
"We don't want a wasted year," Cardin said. "You can't yield to the conventional wisdom that ... it's an election year and we don't expect much to happen."
The president attempted to ease fears of terrorism and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, offering tough words in an effort to mute criticism from some quarters that his administration responded too slowly to the group's growing influence in the Middle East and beyond.
"When you come after Americans, we go after you," Obama said. "It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit."
The president said little about economic inequality or inner-city poverty in places like Baltimore — issues that received significant attention last year after riots following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said Obama took a different approach by focusing on how those issues are discussed.
"It's really about the tone, the civility, the discussion in Washington," Morial said. "I think what the president's trying to do is set the course for the conversation."