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Obama: 'Tonight, we turn the page'

January 21, 2015

In his sixth annual State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama has declared the economic crisis over and called on Americans to move forward together. The speech marks the final leg of his two-term presidency.

Barack Obama / Rede zur Lage der Nation / USA
Image: Reuters

With the balance of power of Congress already established by mid-term elections in November and the end of his second and final term fast approaching, US President Barack Obama was clear on Tuesday evening that his administration would use its remaining time with purpose.

"It has been and still is a hard time for many [in America]. But tonight, we turn the page," he said to a standing ovation on Capitol Hill.

'Middle class economics work'

Obama focused the majority of his widely anticipated annual State of the Union address on the accomplishments of his six years in office, which began with an economic recession. Some 30 million people are estimated to have tuned in for the speech.

"For all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: the shadow of crisis has passed and the state of the union is strong," he said.

He touted low unemployment - now at 5.6 percent - job growth rates and high enrollment figures among university students as proof that "middle class economics" work. However, he also pointed to the continued need for more attention from lawmakers on bolstering the middle class which still faced the threat of crippling debt, insufficient wages and benefits.

America does best when "everyone plays by the same set of rules" and that begins with taxes, he said.

The remarks reflect proposals from Obama which will still need congressional approval. High on the list are raising taxation on top capital gains and dividends from 23.8 percent to 28 percent. The president also wants to guarantee paid sick leave of seven days for workers and eliminate the cost of community colleges for many students to lift the burden of student loans.

Such policies would make "a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families."

Republicans called the president's priorities into question.

"Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare," said Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, referring to Obama's health care overhaul. "It's a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions."

Obama also vowed to pursue better deals in trade relations with Europe and Asia to benefit American businesses, a path which has found resonance among Republicans.

'Smarter American leadership'

Now facing two Republican-controlled houses of Congress, the US president urged lawmakers to deliberate carefully over foreign policy decisions that could stifle progress, particularly relating to Iran and the Middle East.

Obama urged lawmakers to consider how his administration's commitment to diplomacy - "smarter American leadership" - over military campaigns had positively impacted relations with Iran.

"For the first time in a decade, we've halted the progress of its nuclear program," he said, adding that he hoped lawmakers would decide against continuing sanctions that would undo his work.

With an eye on an upcoming vote to authorize expanded military force against "Islamic State" militants in Iraq and Syria, he also promoted the success of the US-led aerial campaign against the Islamists, which began last summer.

Guantanamo 'is not who we are'

Cuba also featured in Obama's address. Despite criticism from Republicans over his step toward ending a decades-long trade embargo, the US president defended his action to pursue better diplomatic relations.

Continuing in the same vein, he appealed to lawmakers to consider other unsuccessful policies, namely the continued use of Guantanamo Bay prison, long condemned by the international community.

"It is not who we are, it's time to close [Guantanamo]," he said, vowing that it would be shut down before the end of his second term. Shutting down the US military's prison in Cuba was among the first orders the president signed when sworn into office in January 2009.

An eye on 2016

From the beginning of Obama's time in office, Republicans, and Democrats in Congress have repeatedly failed to work together, causing widespread discontent among US voters over the state of politics. With only two years left to go and both parties already gearing up for the 2016 presidential election, observers have said Obama sought to bring members of both chambers together to produce bills that would help America move forward.

He raised a number of issues during his speech that will likely mold the rhetoric of the next presidential campaigns, including the US deficit, energy policies, civil liberties and immigration reform. Pointing to where Washington has fallen short, Obama vowed to do more to work together, but also stressed that his fellow politicians must do better.

Washington needed to pursue "better politics [which] appeal to our basic decency," and to lead debates "worthy of this body and worthy of this country."

"My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I swore as an oath on the steps of this Capitol…to do what's best for America."

Ahead of his address, surveys showed Obama's approval ratings had risen several percentage points. A Gallup poll put his approval rating at 46 percent, while a poll by ABC and the Washington Post showed he had an approval rating of 50 percent.

kms/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)