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Live blog: 2016 State of the Union

January 12, 2016

President Obama has delivered his final State of the Union address, talking about ISIS, the future and Trumpism.

  • Mike DeBonis
  • ·

During his hour-long speech, President Obama did not mention the unfolding situation in the Persian Gulf, where 10 U.S. sailors were being detailed by Iran after their two Navy boats drifted off course.

Top Republicans had urged Obama to address the situation, but his only mention of Iran came when he praised the nuclear deal concluded last year, of which he said, “the world has avoided another war.”

Afterward, Republican lawmakers criticized Obama for the omission.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said the lack of a mention stuck out, especially in the context of the president’s brief praise for the nuclear accord. “The ballistic missile tests, the firing of the rocket, now the detaining of 10 U.S. servicemen,” he said, “just shows the folly of that agreement.”

But Democrats said they gave Obama the benefit of the doubt, given the uncertainty surrounding the incident.

“I think that when the situation is so in flux, that anything you might mention might actually hurt their safety, so I think he was putting the safety of the sailors first, which is right,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“I think he probably made a decision that it was best not to mention them because we’re working behind the scenes to get them free,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who like Schumer opposed the nuclear deal. “Obviously, it was on everybody’s mind.”

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said Obama didn’t have to say much to signal his concern.

“Not even a mention?” he said. “I understand there might be a sensitive negotiation going on, but you might just acknowledge that it happened and we’re going to do everything in our power to get them returned home safely.”

  • Meena Ganesan
  • ·

In her response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) discussed her upbringing as a child of Indian immigrants and drew parallels to conversations around immigration happening with her party.

“No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country. At the same time, that does not mean we just flat out open our borders. We can’t do that. We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined. We must fix our broken immigration system. That means stopping illegal immigration. And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries.”

Haley also called for tolerance that stood in contrast to comments made by GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation . . . While 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. And that can make a world of difference.”

  • Kelsey Snell
  • ·

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said that he was honored to preside over his first State of the Union address and expressed hope for bipartisanship but criticized the agenda Obama discussed in the speech.

“As usual, the president tried to manage people’s perceptions instead of confronting reality: His policies aren’t working,” Ryan said. “He didn’t have an answer for how to defeat ISIS. If everything were as great as he said it was, two-thirds of the American people wouldn’t say the country is on the wrong track. Success doesn’t need hype; it speaks for itself. I just wish the president had leveled with the people—or at least with himself.”

  • Kelsey Snell
  • ·

Shortly after President Obama wrapped up his final State of the Union address, Hillary Clinton was asking her Twitter followers to sign an online form supporting gun control.

  • Julie Zauzmer
  • ·

Obama planned a symbolic gesture for his final State of the Union: an empty chair in the first lady’s guest box, “for the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice,” the White House said in advance.

But in the speech itself, he almost entirely skipped over the topic of gun violence. He used the word “gun” just one time, in a long list of priorities: “I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing. Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families; they are still the right thing to do; and I will not let up until they get done.”

Obama did just devote an emotional address to the nation a week ago entirely to the topic of guns, so perhaps he decided not to repeat that theme tonight.

  • Julie Zauzmer
  • ·

Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), delivering the Republican party’s response to Obama’s final State of the Union, began her speech as a pitch to elect a Republican president in 2016.

“I’m gonna talk about a vision of a brighter American future,” she began. “But first I’m going to say a few words about President Barack Obama.”

“Tonight President Obama spoke eloquently about grand things. He’s at his best when he does that,” she said. But she said the president has “often fallen far short” of his lofty words.

She criticized the president’s health-care law, the “chaotic unrest in many of our cities” and the country’s vulnerability to terrorism.

Before discussing her history as part of an immigrant family and her state’s tragic mass shooting in a Charleston, S.C., church, Haley made a call to voters to pick a Republican for their next president. “America will have the chance to turn in a new direction. That direction is what I want to talk about tonight,” she said. “You’ve paid attention to what is happening in Washington, and you’re not naive.”

  • Paul Kane
  • ·

It’s not just President Obama’s last State of the Union address. It’s also Vice President Biden’s last turn being the guy behind the guy on SOTU night.

As of 10:25 p.m., a full 15 minutes after the speech ended, five to 10 minutes after Obama has left, Biden is still soaking in the moment, finally his “body guy” got him off the House chamber.

Biden talked to any and all lawmaker who came up to him, posing for pictures with Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). He talked with Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), signed the official program of Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.).

It won’t be a quiet final year in office for Biden, following Obama’s announcement Tuesday night that the vice president — who lost his 46-year-old son, Beau, to cancer last May — would be in charge of a new “mission control” to find a cure for cancer. “For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer,” Obama said, drawing bipartisan applause and chants of “Joe, Joe” from lawmakers.

In all likelihood, barring an unforeseen moment of national crisis, it was Obama’s last appearance in the House chamber. But Biden, 73, might return for speeches this year from foreign dignitaries and will be tasked with overseeing the formal count of the electoral college a year from now to certify the new president’s election.

Still, Biden wasn’t leaving right away. He stuck around longer than almost anyone, taking it all in.

  • Glenn Kessler
  • ·

“Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either.”

THE FACT CHECKER| In lauding his achievements in energy, the president made a reference to the dramatic decline in gasoline prices. But the White House graphics that accompanied his speech in its posting on Medium included a graphic that made a claim based on much higher gas prices.

The graphic claimed that “Americans will save nearly $8,000 at the pump in 2025 thanks to doubling the fuel efficiency of our car and light trucks.” But there are two big caveats to that figure, which comes from official government estimates of the savings over the lifetime of a car between 2012 and 2025.

First, gasoline was presumed to cost about $3.42 before taxes, so obviously any savings would be significantly reduced if gasoline stays at current levels. Second, the cost of the rules was estimated to amount to $3,000, thus reducing the savings to car owners to $5,000 even before the impact of lower fuel prices is considered.  One study estimated that more than $4,700 of the cost of a 2009 car already stems from added safety and emission equipment.

  • Julie Zauzmer
  • ·

Most of the candidates running for the Republican nomination for president posted their criticisms of Obama on Twitter during the speech.

Donald Trump took his usual insult-flinging tone:

But Mike Huckabee topped Trump for what was most likely the most colorful candidate tweet of the night:

  • Kelsey Snell
  • ·

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called Obama’s final State of the Union a return to partisanship after bipartisan successes like the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and the long-term highway bill that was approved last year.

“Our success was rooted in bipartisan compromise, and the American people are witnessing the results of a functioning Congress,” Hatch said. “But tonight, the President regrettably reverted back to a partisan tone, refusing to acknowledge the failures of his health law and instead advocating for more misguided policies that will only grow the government, not the economy.”

  • Karen DeYoung
  • ·

While listing his foreign policy accomplishments—including an international climate agreement, a negotiated Pacific trade deal, a nuclear deal with Iran and restored relations with Cuba—President Obama devoted most of his State of the Union remarks on foreign policy and national security to a restatement of his bedrock beliefs about America’s global position and responsibilities.

“American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world except when we kill terrorists; or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling,” he said. “Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right.”

Obama has made no mention of Tuesday’s news that 10 U.S. sailors were being held by Iran after their two naval vessels strayed into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. U.S. officials have said they expect the men to be released by Wednesday morning.

Without mentioning names, he directly dismissed calls by Republicans presidential candidates to step up the use of U.S. military force against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

“Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”

He said America should have learned by now, after the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq, that attempts to “take over and build every country that falls into crisis” is “not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us.”

“Fortunately, there’s a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power,” Obama said. “It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies. But on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.”

Talk of U.S. weakness, he said, is “hot air.”

“People do not look to Moscow or Beijing to lead,” Obama said. “They call us.”

He briefly outlined ongoing air and ground operations of the U.S.-led coalition and its local allies in Syria and Iraq, and belittled “fighters on the back of pickup trucks, and twisted souls plotting in apartments.” They “must be stopped,” Obama said, “but they do not threaten our national existence.”

Obama criticized Congress for failing to vote a new authorization for the use of force against militants, and said he would “keep on working” toward what will likely to be an unfulfilled pledge to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before the end of his term.

  • Kelsey Snell
  • ·

President Obama listed several structural reforms that he said would help make the country function better, including ending political redistricting.

“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. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do.”

Republicans helped secure dozens of safe congressional seats since the redistricting that occurred after the 2010 census. Obama said he can tell that nobody in Washington enjoys the political fights that have consumed lawmakers in recent years. He said one of his few regrets is that the “rancor and suspicion between the parties” has grown during his presidency.

  • Julie Zauzmer
  • ·

social_card [Tue Jan 12 2016 21-39-23 GMT-0500 (EST)]

Leading into his announcement of a new national effort to develop a cancer cure, headed by Vice President Biden, Obama delivered a rousing recollection of America’s history of innovation.

“That spirit of discovery is in our DNA. We’re Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. We’re Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride,” he said.

Who were they?

Edison invented a number of devices, most notably the first practical electric lightbulb. Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the airplane, and black scientist George Washington Carver, born into slavery, went on to develop more than 100 innovative uses for peanuts in products such as plastic, paint, even gasoline.

Hopper earned a doctorate degree in math from Yale in 1934. She was one of the world’s very first computer programmers, as well as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.

Johnson, a mathematician who worked for NASA, helped make the nation’s first human spaceflights possible — before Ride became the first woman to go into space. Johnson is now 97 years old, and Obama gave her the National Medal of Freedom in November.

  • Glenn Kessler
  • ·

“We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”

THE FACT CHECKER | The president used to say “roughly ten nations” when making this comparison, but cuts in U.S. defense spending and increases in estimates of Chinese spending appears to have shifted the calculation.

The mostly widely cited public source for this claim is the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tallies public numbers each year.  SIPRI urges caution in how its data is used, saying that beyond “very broad and clear comparisons” between countries with vastly different budgets, “attempts to draw conclusions about a country’s level of military capability from its level of military expenditure should be regarded with considerable skepticism.”

That’s because raw numbers can be misleading. The official Chinese figures are believed to be understated — and it costs China less money to buy the same goods and services as the United States. A rough calculation of purchasing power parity suggests the correct figure for Chinese defense spending could be double official estimates.

The comparison to China also does not include the fact that because it is not a global power, Beijing may actually spend more on its military in the western Pacific than does the United States.

Moreover, the United States ranks ninth when military spending is measured as a percentage of the gross domestic product, according to the CIA Factbook. Percentage of GDP is a good indicator of how a country chooses to use its resources — the top ranks of the list are dominated by oil-rich Middle Eastern countries and Israel — but the statistic does not shed much light on the effectiveness of a country’s military. So there are also limitations in that comparison.

  • Kelsey Snell
  • ·

social_card [Tue Jan 12 2016 22-07-21 GMT-0500 (EST)]

Obama continued his series of jabs at Republican presidential candidates with a barb aimed at Sen. Ted Cruz’s promise to “carpet bomb” terrorists.

“Our foreign policy must be focused on the threat from ISIL and al Qaeda, but it can’t stop there. For even without ISIL, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world — in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in parts of Central America, Africa and Asia. Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks; others will fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees. The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”

  • Julie Zauzmer
  • ·

“Even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country; they undermine our allies,” Obama said, mentioning both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, using the acronym ISIL.

“But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands…. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, nor do we 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 repeated a call to Congress to officially authorize the military’s actions in the region: “We are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons. We are training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria. If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote.”

  • Kelsey Snell
  • ·

social_card [Tue Jan 12 2016 21-50-10 GMT-0500 (EST)]

President Obama wasn’t shy about jabbing back at Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump who have been calling America weak. Obama pushed back on the idea that America is falling behind as foreign enemies are getting stronger without mentioning any candidates by name.

“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.”

He repeated “not even close” several times before pointing out that the United States spends more on the military than “the next eight nations combined.”

  • Wesley Lowery
  • ·

As the nation’s first black commander in chief, President Obama has walked a political tightrope when it comes to addressing issues of race from his perch in the White House.

In January 2015, Obama delivered what were his most robust comments on race of any of his State of the Union addresses — directly discussing the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and the then-upcoming 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma.

“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York,” Obama said in 2015. “But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed.”

But in this year’s speech — which followed a year that saw protests in cities like Chicago and Minneapolis as well as eruptions of riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died in police custody — Obama did not directly address issues of race and policing that have dominated domestic policy discussions.

Obama opened Tuesday night’s speech by calling for criminal justice reform — as a proposal with bipartisan backing sits awaiting congressional approval.

But this year’s speech did not directly tackle the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, or the national discussion of race and policing that has underscored many of the domestic policy debates at the heart of the 2016 presidential race.

“Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed,” Obama said, in the closest to a direct mention of race in his 2016 speech. “Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

Later on, Obama added that among the voices he hears that remind him of the prospect of American Exceptionalism are “the protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.”

  • Kelsey Snell
  • ·

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) released a statement mid-speech comparing Obama’s speech with Republican plans for energizing the economy.

“In a world more dangerous, a country more divided and a people more disheartened than when he took office, the President’s speech was remarkably disconnected from the worries of everyday Americans. Instead of devoting his final State of the Union to his personal vision for our country, he should have focused on pro-growth policies that matter most to families and local job creators.

“By contrast, Ways and Means Committee lawmakers are listening to Americans who want Washington to take action now to improve our economy and get our country back on the right track. We are aggressively advancing legislative solutions to help more people enjoy better jobs, bigger paychecks and greater opportunities.”

  • Glenn Kessler
  • ·

And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters.

THE FACT CHECKER | The improvement in the economy, coupled with the spending cuts in the sequester, has yielded a significantly lower deficit than just a few years ago. The deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was $439 billion.

For economists, raw numbers mean less than the percentage of the gross domestic product, and here, too, there has been an improvement. As a percentage of the GDP, the deficit in fiscal year 2015 was 2.5 percent, the lowest level since 2007.

For fiscal year 2009, when Obama took office, the deficit was 9.8 percent of GDP, so that’s a 75-percent reduction.

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