Obama focuses on vision in final State of the Union

Obama at the 2011 State of the Union Address.

Alex Hanson

President Obama veered from the usual State of the Union address that he and many presidents have delivered over the years, instead focusing on a vision rather than a series of policy proposals.

Obama’s address called for a “fix” to American politics in the midst of a busy campaign season that includes more attacks every day. The White House billed the speech, which was supposed to be Obama’s vision of what America should be, as a “non-traditional” address.

Here are five takeaways from Obama’s address.

1. Speech on vision, not policy

Obama spent most of his time reflecting back on the last seven years in office, and what he hopes the next president will push.

He went down a long list of accomplishments: America having “the strongest, most durable economy “ in the world; being in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job growth; 14 million new jobs; unemployment cut in half; 900,000 new manufacturing jobs; and cutting the deficit by almost three-quarters.

His vision for the future included four planks: First, how does everyone get a fair shot in a “new” economy? Second, how can we use technology to work for us, not against us, on things such as climate change? Third, how does America stay safe without becoming the world’s police? Finally, how do you make American politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

After laying out certain policy, he also called for systematic change in American politics, and to work together, regardless of party.

“So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen,” Obama said. “To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.”

2. Obama: Change our politics

Obama said opportunity and security, a rising standard of living, and a sustainable, peaceful planet for kids is “all within our reach,” but only if we change our politics in the country.

“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything,” he said. “This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too.”

Changing the president, our senators and representatives, is not enough, he said. It will take a change in the system.

“We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” Obama said. “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections  —  and if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution. We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now.”

He said change would only happen, though, if the American people demand it.

3. Foreign policy in time of fear

Obama dismissed fears from recent terror attacks and the rise of terrorist groups, such as ISIS, are a major threat to the United States, instead calling terror concerns “rhetoric” that have no basis.

“I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air,” Obama said. “Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.”

Sticking with his vision theme, Obama said, “Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right.”

He also called on Congress to take a vote on officially declaring war on ISIS, but said it’s not a war against the entire religion of Islam, “but killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down and destroyed.”

“We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong,” Obama said. “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, 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.”

4. Republican response from rising GOP star

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican who has been floated as a possible nominee for vice president, delivered the official response — although the Republicans called it another “address to the nation” instead of a usual response.

“The president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words. As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels,” Haley said. “Soon, the Obama presidency will end, and America will have the chance to turn in a new direction. That direction is what I want to talk about tonight.”

Obama called out Republicans for their “rhetoric” on foreign policy threats, but Haley said the United States is facing the most serious terror threat since 9/11, and the “president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it.”

In the midst of campaigning not only in Iowa, but her state of South Carolina, which votes shortly after Iowa, Haley said a Republican elected to the White House would take America toward a different vision, such as lower tax for “working families,” a stop to “runaway spending and debt,” changes to how international agreements are made and strengthening the military.

“We have big decisions to make. Our country is being tested,” Haley said. “But we’ve been tested in the past, and our people have always risen to the challenge. We have all the guidance we need to be safe and successful. Our forefathers paved the way for us. Let’s take their values, and their strengths, and rededicate ourselves to doing whatever it takes to keep America the greatest country in the history of man.”

5. Iowa’s take

U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who represents Ames and Iowa State, decided to skip attending the address, instead announcing early Tuesday that he would be “praying for God to raise up a leader whom he will use to restore the Soul of America.”

He also left an open seat in the House chamber; similar to what Obama opted to do to commemorate victims of gun violence. King’s open seat, he said in a press release, was “to commemorate the lives of more than 55 million aborted babies”

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said in an interview with The Daily on Tuesday morning that she was hoping the president would “take the interests of the American people to heart,” but “she wasn’t sure that would happen.”

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement that Obama downplaying the terrorist threat has been “alarming,” his economic policy offers “little in terms of real solutions,” and his “rhetoric on economic growth is at cross purposes with the regulations coming out of the executive branch.”

“The Republican-led Congress will continue to fight for the economic growth that made America the envy of the world and will work to keep our country strong in the face of increasing dangers from those who want to destroy our way of life,” Grassley said.

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, the only Democrat in Iowa’s Congressional Delegation, said he appreciates the president’s ideas, agrees with him on his call to expand education and job training, and also applauded his ideas on clean energy, which he said Iowa has been a “longtime champion” of.

“I especially appreciate the president’s call to set aside politics and work together,” Loebsack said. “None of our priorities will be possible if Congress can’t put aside the partisan gridlock and ideological divisions that have threatened our economy time and again.”