Obama: 'We may surprise cynics again'

State of the Union highlights

President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address was also his loosest. He knows he cannot win much from a Republican Congress amid a frenetic race to succeed him, and won't waste much energy trying.

Instead, the eighth-year chief directed his hour-long remarks to listeners with a longer time horizon — to future presidents and lawmakers and the voters who will elect them. His aim was shaping political argument beyond his own presidency.

"I want to focus on the next five years, 10 years, and beyond," he told his audience on television and in the House chamber Tuesday night. "So let's talk about the future, and four big questions that we as a country have to answer  —  regardless of who the next president is or who controls the next Congress."

He posed them this way: "First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us  —  especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what's best in us, and not what's worst?"

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill January 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C.
Getty Images

Those questions framed his ongoing disputes with Republicans as well as the arguments now playing out in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere along the 2016 campaign trail. He began by claiming success in recovering from recession and financial crisis, citing a record-setting string of monthly private sector job growth and strong performance by the auto industry he acted to rescue.

"Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction," the president said. "What is true — and the reason that a lot of Americans feel anxious — is that the economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit and haven't let up."

He invoked his own remedies for that insecurity: higher minimum wages, improved education for the next generation of workers, stronger pensions, tougher regulation of corporations and a reformed tax system. And he strongly disputed candidates like Donald Trump who point toward illegal immigrants as the source of America's economic woes.

"Food-stamp recipients didn't cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did," Obama said. "Immigrants aren't the principal reason wages haven't gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It's sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts."

Those assertions refer to some of the fiercest economic, social and political issues that continue to divide Republicans and Democrats. Obama expressed regret for not having had more success bridging those divides in this era of political polarization.

But he offered words of conciliation for the new House Speaker Paul Ryan, a conservative Republican who shares his own penchant for policy debates. If he has no hope of bridging the ideological gap between them on the biggest disputes, Obama cited the compromise they struck on budget issues late last year as hope they can do more business in his final year — perhaps through bipartisan congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and reform of the criminal justice system

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016.
Obama in State of the Union: We need to 'fix our politics'

"Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the constructive approach you and the other leaders took at the end of last year to pass a budget and make tax cuts permanent for working families," Obama said with Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden sitting behind him. "So I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities.

"Who knows?" the president concluded. "We just might surprise the cynics again."