US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the US Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 20, 2015. — Reuters
WASHINGTON: The United States stands side by side with the victims of terror around the world, President Barack Obama said Tuesday, as he also deplored what he called a rise in anti-Semitism.
“We stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists – from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris,” Obama said in his State of the Union address, just days after attacks in the French capital left 17 dead.
As he asked US lawmakers to give him updated war powers to use American military might to go after the Islamic State group, Obama vowed: “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks.” But he stressed US officials “reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office, to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies”.
He also denounced that “deplorable anti-Semitism” was again being seen in places around the world. But the US president also stressed “we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims – the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace”.
Promising to stand up for and respect human dignity, Obama added: “That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities.”
“We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.”
‘Shadow of crisis has passed’
Obama declared America has turned the page on years of war and economic hardship. Emboldened with a stronger economy and better approval ratings, the US president called for a new chapter in US history that ushers a fairer economy with a better shake for the middle class.
“We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world,” he said.
“It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page.”
“The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” Obama said, claiming credit for ending the “Great Recession”.
He heralded the “growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production” that have also helped revive his political fortunes as his time in the White House nears its end.
For six years Obama’s presidency was often subsumed by an economic crisis that stymied efforts to narrow inequality and put other liberal policy priorities on the back burner.
Appealing to Democrats determined to retain the White House in 2016, Obama on Tuesday called for an increase in the minimum wage, equal pay for women and tax breaks for the middle class.
Drawing a stark contrast with tax-averse Republicans, he dared his foes to oppose proposed tax hikes for the rich that would pay for middle class breaks.
“We have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.”
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” he asked.
Obama’s Republican opponents have branded such talk as little more than class warfare and will use their majority in both houses of Congress to make sure the plans never become law.
Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who was tasked with rebutting Obama’s speech, said Americans are still suffering from “stagnant wages and lost jobs”.
She also decried Obama’s “failed policies” and a “stale mind-set” that led to “political talking points, not serious solutions”.
“We’ll propose ideas that aim to cut wasteful spending and balance the budget – with meaningful reforms, not higher taxes like the President has proposed.”
In recent months, Obama has used his executive authority – opponents would argue he has stretched it to the limit – to circumvent Republican opposition, imposing and opposing some policies by decree.
Many of his efforts have focused overseas, including attempts to improve relations with America’s most implacable foes.
On Tuesday, he redoubled calls to end the half-century-old embargo on Cuba and vowed to veto any move to put further sanctions on Iran.
“Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere,” he said.
Polls suggest Americans support the Cuban outreach and Obama hammered home his advantage by inviting Alan Gross, a former US prisoner in Cuba, who whispered “thank you, thank you” during the speech.
On Iran, Obama warned that any move to impose new sanctions could scupper delicate negotiations aimed at reaching a complex nuclear deal.
“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails,” he said.
“That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”
Turing to trade, Obama called on Congress to give him the powers to fully negotiate huge transpacific and transatlantic free-trade agreements.