Obama casts a hopeful vision in final State of the Union address

WASHINGTON - With Americans soon to being choosing his successor, President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address to rekindle belief in the promise of change that first carried him to the White House, declaring that the country must not allow election-year fear and division to put economic and security progress at risk.

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Addressing a hostile Republican-led Congress and a country plunged in a tumultuous, at times angry presidential campaign, Obama used his Tuesday night address to summon an affirmative vision of his administration and for the future.

"All the talk of America's economic decline is political hot air," Obama said in Tuesday night's address. "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 said.

He rebutted critics, naysayers and the Republican White House hopefuls, but also acknowledged his own failure to transform the country's bitter politics and unite the nation.

With a year left in office, he presented that task as more urgent than ever and pleaded with voters to turn away from harsh voices and come together.

"Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested," Obama said. "Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention."

Obama said "one of the few regrets of my presidency" is "that the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."

He specifically called for ending the practice of drawing up some congressional districts in a manner that gives parties an iron grip on House seats. He also urged steps to make voting easier and reduce the influence of money in politics.

The president's address to both chambers of Congress and a prime-time television audience was meant to both shape his legacy and put his imprint squarely on the race to succeed him.

He defended his record - and implicitly urged the public to elect another Democratic president to build on it.

At times, Obama referred sarcastically to the Republicans running to replace him, though without mentioning them by name, just weeks before the first nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. He countered the negativity of Donald Trump, who promises to keep out Muslims and "Make America Great Again," and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's vow to "carpet bomb" the Islamic State group.

Referencing terror threats around the globe, Obama defended his own efforts fighting Islamic State militants, and said: "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." Cruz skipped the speech, though his primary opponent, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, was present.

Shortly before the speech began, news broke that Iran was holding 10 U.S. Navy sailors and their two small boats that drifted into Iranian waters after experiencing mechanical problems. The development, which Obama did not mention, prompted criticism from Republicans about Obama's hard-fought Iran nuclear deal, which the president extolled, arguing that "the world has avoided another war."

Trump had his own rebuttal over Twitter, remarking: "The #SOTU speech is really boring, slow, lethargic - very hard to watch!" Congressional Republicans began filing out even before it was over.

Obama addressed a Congress now run by emboldened Republican majorities already planning their agenda under a potential Republican successor, starting with repealing the president's signature health care law.

Behind Obama sat the new House Speaker Paul Ryan, who reacted dismissively to Obama's remarks, saying in a statement, "I can't say I was disappointed by the president's speech, but that's because I wasn't expecting much."

Obama defended his health care measure Tuesday night, claiming that millions have gained coverage. Delivering the Republican response, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley reiterated the party's pledge to "end a disastrous health care program, and replace it with reforms."

However, striking similar notes to Obama, Haley also warned against strident voices among Republicans who rail against immigrants and others, a measure of the party's profound divisions as it struggles to unite to keep Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat from replacing Obama.

"During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation," said Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants.

It was an apparent reference to the heated rhetoric about immigrants and minorities from Republican front-runner Donald Trump that has unnerved some Republican leaders.

Mindful of the scant prospect for major legislative action in an election year, Obama avoided the traditional litany of policy proposals found in State of the Union addresses in which presidents outline their agenda for the coming year.

But Obama did offer some proposals, confronting a Congress largely hostile to his agenda by mentioning initiatives that are dead on arrival, including immigration reform and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But Obama held out hope that compromise could be possible - even from divided government in a campaign season - on issues like criminal justice reform, finalizing an Asia-Pacific trade pact, and helping people addicted to prescription drugs.

And he boasted of the Paris agreement on climate, refuting his critics by saying: "Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You'll be pretty lonely."

Obama's vice-president, Joe Biden, sat behind him. Obama alluded to Biden's own loss of his son to cancer this past year in tasking the vice-president to lead a new national effort to conquer the disease.

The president himself appeared to get momentarily caught up in the emotion of the moment. As he walked toward the exit after his hour-long speech, he turned back to the crowded House chamber and said, "Let me take one more look at this thing."

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AP writers Julie Pace, Erica Werner, Josh Lederman, Nancy Benac and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.



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