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Obama Eager to Counter Republican Presidential Contenders


President Barack Obama, delivering his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, urged Americans to “reject any politics that target people because of race or religion,” Jan. 12, 2016.

President Barack Obama, delivering his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, urged Americans to “reject any politics that target people because of race or religion,” Jan. 12, 2016.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump was not in the House of Representatives chamber Tuesday night for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. But he was clearly on the president's mind.

Obama seemed determined to provide a counternarrative to the generally negative tone of the presidential campaign being put forward by various Republican White House contenders.

The president said those who maintain the U.S. economy is in decline are “peddling fiction.” Republican claims that the U.S. has become weaker during Obama’s two terms are, in the president’s view, “political hot air.”

The president seemed intent on rebutting some of the more controversial aspects of the Trump candidacy.

“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” he asked.

Obama also urged Americans to “reject any politics that target people because of race or religion,” an apparent reference to Trump’s call for a temporary ban on non-American Muslims entering the U.S. Obama added, “When politicians insult Muslims … that doesn’t make us safer."

Predictably critical, Trump tweeted that the president's address was “lethargic and hard to watch." He also said Wednesday on "Fox and Friends" that he thought the president was “living in a fantasy land.”

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Jan. 12, 2016.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Jan. 12, 2016.

Trump continues to lead the Republican field in the latest national polls, and he is locked in a tight duel in Iowa, the state that kicks off the campaign for real with its party caucus votes on February 1.

Haley’s swipe at Trump

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley gave the official Republican response to the president’s address, and her criticism of Obama was no surprise. Haley said Americans were feeling “the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels.”

On national security, which has emerged as a key issue in the campaign, Haley said Obama “appears either unwilling or unable to deal” with what she called “the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th [2001].”

But it was the South Carolina governor’s unexpected shot at Trump that drew the most notice. Haley noted she is the daughter of Indian immigrants, and that while the U.S. must take steps to fix “a broken immigration system,” she also warned that “during anxious times it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”

Haley added that no one who “is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.” She later acknowledged on NBC she had Trump in mind.

Haley’s shot at Trump did not go unnoticed by “The Donald.” Republican strategists have touted Haley as a possible vice presidential candidate, but Trump was quick to throw some cold water on that idea during his Fox interview: “Considering I’m leading in the polls by a lot, I wouldn’t say she is off to a good start, based on what she just said.”

The official Republican response to the State of the Union represents the views of the party establishment and Republican congressional leaders. Haley’s criticism of Trump indicates that mainstream Republicans have not reconciled themselves to the idea of Trump becoming the Republican nominee.

Obama's legacy

Obama’s speech was seen by some as a preview of his farewell address, which presidents give just before they leave office. His focus on optimistic themes and his call to heal the nation’s political divide were in line with what he hopes will be his presidential legacy. But Obama also made clear in the speech that his biggest regret was that he was not able to bridge the nation's political divide.

Republicans point to the passage of his signature health care law with only Democratic votes as proof that Obama is primarily responsible for the hyperpartisanship.

Republican strategist Matt Gammon, a guest on VOA’s live coverage of the State of the Union address, said, “One of the things that I really would have wished to hear more of is his reaching out to Republicans.”

FILE - South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, shown speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, Sept. 2, 2015, said in her party's response to the State of the Union address that "there is more than enough blame to go around” for the nation's problems.

FILE - South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, shown speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, Sept. 2, 2015, said in her party's response to the State of the Union address that "there is more than enough blame to go around” for the nation's problems.

But Republican Haley acknowledged in her speech that “while Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around.”

Some said Obama seemed determined not to become an afterthought as the country focuses on the 2016 race to succeed him.

“I think it is going to serve to further divide the country and to get Democrats excited about things and to get Republicans excited against them,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “But I don’t think it’s going to make much of a difference.”

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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