This is a statement from the Office of Barack Obama:
Immigration can be a controversial topic. We all want safe, secure borders and a dynamic economy, and people of goodwill can have legitimate disagreements about how to fix our immigration system so that everybody plays by the rules.
But that’s not what the action that the White House took today is about. This is about young people who grew up in America – kids who study in our schools, young adults who are starting careers, patriots who pledge allegiance to our flag. These Dreamers are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents, sometimes even as infants. They may not know a country besides ours. They may not even know a language besides English. They often have no idea they’re undocumented until they apply for a job, or college, or a driver’s license.
Over the years, politicians of both parties have worked together to write legislation that would have told these young people – our young people – that if your parents brought you here as a child, if you’ve been here a certain number of years, and if you’re willing to go to college or serve in our military, then you’ll get a chance to stay and earn your citizenship. And for years while I was President, I asked Congress to send me such a bill.
That bill never came. And because it made no sense to expel talented, driven, patriotic young people from the only country they know solely because of the actions of their parents, my administration acted to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people, so that they could continue to contribute to our communities and our country. We did so based on the well-established legal principle of prosecutorial discretion, deployed by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, because our immigration enforcement agencies have limited resources, and it makes sense to focus those resources on those who come illegally to this country to do us harm. Deportations of criminals went up. Some 800,000 young people stepped forward, met rigorous requirements, and went through background checks. And America grew stronger as a result.
But today, that shadow has been cast over some of our best and brightest young people once again. To target these young people is wrong – because they have done nothing wrong. It is self-defeating – because they want to start new businesses, staff our labs, serve in our military, and otherwise contribute to the country we love. And it is cruel. What if our kid’s science teacher, or our friendly neighbor turns out to be a Dreamer? Where are we supposed to send her? To a country she doesn’t know or remember, with a language she may not even speak?
Let’s be clear: the action taken today isn’t required legally. It’s a political decision, and a moral question. Whatever concerns or complaints Americans may have about immigration in general, we shouldn’t threaten the future of this group of young people who are here through no fault of their own, who pose no threat, who are not taking away anything from the rest of us. They are that pitcher on our kid’s softball team, that first responder who helps out his community after a disaster, that cadet in ROTC who wants nothing more than to wear the uniform of the country that gave him a chance. Kicking them out won’t lower the unemployment rate, or lighten anyone’s taxes, or raise anybody’s wages.
It is precisely because this action is contrary to our spirit, and to common sense, that business leaders, faith leaders, economists, and Americans of all political stripes called on the administration not to do what it did today. And now that the White House has shifted its responsibility for these young people to Congress, it’s up to Members of Congress to protect these young people and our future. I’m heartened by those who’ve suggested that they should. And I join my voice with the majority of Americans who hope they step up and do it with a sense of moral urgency that matches the urgency these young people feel.
Ultimately, this is about basic decency. This is about whether we are a people who kick hopeful young strivers out of America, or whether we treat them the way we’d want our own kids to be treated. It’s about who we are as a people – and who we want to be.
What makes us American is not a question of what we look like, or where our names come from, or the way we pray. What makes us American is our fidelity to a set of ideals – that all of us are created equal; that all of us deserve the chance to make of our lives what we will; that all of us share an obligation to stand up, speak out, and secure our most cherished values for the next generation. That’s how America has traveled this far. That’s how, if we keep at it, we will ultimately reach that more perfect union.
Barack Obama will leave office with a 60% approval rating, one of the highest ratings for an outgoing president – remarkable considering the unprecedented opposition and obstruction he has faced from the moment he swore his oath.
It bears reminding that no one came into the presidency with more challenges than Obama – not Washington, Lincoln or FDR. None of them on their first day, had to contend with an imploding economy headed into a Great Depression at the same time the country was embroiled in two foreign wars, not to mention the swine flu epidemic and environmental disasters (BP Oil spill) that came soon after.
Despite the best efforts of the Republicans to insure Obama’s failure, Obama brought the economy back from the brink of a Great Depression, saved the American auto industry, launched the renewable energy industry, restored America’s leadership in the world (Paris Climate Agreement, Iran Nuclear Agreement, opening relations with Cuba after more than 50 years), succeeded where seven presidents before him failed to provide nearly universal affordable, accessible health care. Despite unprecedented opposition – including bills that were tabled – he made inroads into immigration reform, gun violence prevention, criminal justice reform, advanced manufacturing. He accomplished the most sweeping financial protections since the Depression, and yet the stock market has nearly tripled during his tenure, hitting record after record, and since signing Obamacare into law, America’s businesses have added more than 15 million new jobs.
Eight years since taking office, an economy that was shedding 800,000 jobs a month, has had the longest streak of job creation in history; wages have grown faster than any time in the past 40 years. Last year, the poverty rate fell at the fastest pace in almost 50 years while the median household income grew at the fastest rate on record. And Obama did it while cutting deficits by nearly two-thirds.
His signature Affordable Care Act – which should be his crowning achievement – has brought health insurance to 20 million American adults and 3 million children. For the first time ever, more than 90% of Americans have health insurance. Health costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. Every American now has the benefit of true patient protections that hadn’t existed before, when everyone was at the mercy of for-profit insurance companies: people can’t be rejected for pre-existing conditions, there are no annual or lifetime caps, a cap on what private-insurance can spent on non-patient care, and if you lose your job (or your marriage) or start a business, you can still have access to affordable health insurance. Obama’s health reforms have saved an estimated 87,000 lives, when before, more than 20,000 were dying simply for lack of access to health care, not counting how many tens of thousands suffered debilitating diseases that could have been prevented or cured early.
The high school graduation rate is now 83 percent – the highest on record –and more young people graduate from college than ever before. Those who decide not to pursue college, have more options, from expanding access to apprenticeships, to launching high-tech manufacturing institutes, to revamping the job training system and creating programs like TechHire to help people train for higher-paying jobs in months, not years.
Obama brought back 180,000 American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, eliminated from the face of the earth the mastermind of the September 11 2001 terror attacks that succeeded in knocking America off its foundation, and yes, kept America safe from another major, orchestrated attack, foiling plots. And, with the coalition he forged and a relentless campaign of 16,000 airstrikes, the US is “breaking the back” of ISIS, taking away safe havens (most recently in Libya), and done this at a cost of $10 billion over two years, the same amount that was spent in just one month at the height of the Iraq War.
He accomplished a minor miracle by bringing nearly 200 nations together – including China and India – around a climate agreement that could literally save this planet. With new models for development, American assistance is helping people around the world feed themselves, care for their sick, and power communities across Africa. And almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago. And he applied climate action initiatives here, to stem the destruction and public health disasters of pollution, wild fires, drought, floods.
Obama used his executive authority more than any other president to protect iconic historic, cultural and ecological sites across the country representative of the full spectrum of America’s diverse heritage, paying homage to civil rights, women’s suffrage, workers rights, LGBT rights and adding 554 million acres to our national birthright.
He did more to address systemic racism than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, including unleashing DoJ investigations into police departments and challenging voter suppression – and yet does not seem to get the appreciation he should from Black Americans. Boy will they miss him.
Years from now, perhaps not that many – we will realize how much was squandered – Obama’s talent, his compassion, his sense of justice and fairness, his brilliance. How much more could have been accomplished in solving the intractable problems of our time. The progress that could have been made to ameliorating climate change, income inequality, advancing healthcare, promoting quality education and job training, protecting and preserving the environment, advancing peace initiatives.
My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.
Yes, we did. Yes, we can.
It seems that destiny put Obama into the presidency at this time – his election was the result of a confluence of events without which he never would have become the first African-American (half white) President: the historic implosion of the Bush/Cheney administration amid recession and war and John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for his vice president.
This set of circumstances positioned him to preside during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s assassination; the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the March on Washington, Medicare. He was president for the erection of the Martin Luther King Jr. monument and the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History& Culture on the mall.
All the big domestic enterprises were accomplished in his first two years, when he had a Democratic-controlled Congress, despite Senate Republicans using the filibuster to an unprecedented degree. All of which are likely to be erased or overturned within days of Donald Trump taking over the Oval Office.
All that will be gone because Hillary Clinton, despite winning the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, was denied the presidency. Trump’s elevation through the Electoral College was accomplished through voter suppression, Russian hacking and fake news, and was not a repudiation of Obama, who leaves office with 60% approval – one of the highest – while Trump comes into office with 40% approval the lowest approval rating of any incoming president.
Obama’s most important legacy? His grace, dignity, compassion, brilliance that he brought to his office. His calm, cool demeanor, his careful reasoning in face of extraordinary challenges. His unrelenting quest for fairness and justice. The way he always seemed to have a clear-eyed understanding of what American people were feeling, and his ability to always find the right words. Oh how we will miss that “professorial” style for which he was chided. We will miss No Drama Obama.
Every aspect of Obama’s legacy will now be erased – and if Trump could, he would erase Obama’s name altogether. Except one: you can count on Trump to blame Obama for any bad thing that happens, from the inevitable crash of the economy to a new global war.
The only solace I take is that Obama has created the templates for solutions, which hopefully before I die, will be taken out, dusted off, and implemented in order to propel this nation back on the path to being a more perfect union.
As we look back on the past eight years, President Obama asked each member of his Cabinet to write an Exit Memo on the progress we’ve made, their vision for the country’s future, and the work that remains in order to achieve that vision. At the same time, President Obama has composed a letter to the American people, which will accompany the Cabinet Exit Memos. You can view each memo at go.wh.gov/CabinetInReview.
Letter from President Obama
To my fellow Americans,
Eight years ago, America faced a moment of peril unlike any we’d seen in decades.
A spiraling financial crisis threatened to plunge an economy in recession into a deep depression. The very heartbeat of American manufacturing – the American auto industry – was on the brink of collapse. In some communities, nearly one in five Americans were out of work. Nearly 180,000 American troops were serving in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the mastermind of the worst terror attack on American soil remained at large. And on challenges from health care to climate change, we’d been kicking the can down the road for way too long.
But in the depths of that winter, on January 20, 2009, I stood before you and swore a sacred oath. I told you that day that the challenges we faced would not be met easily or in a short span of time – but they would be met. And after eight busy years, we’ve met them – because of you.
Eight years later, an economy that was shrinking at more than eight percent is now growing at more than three percent. Businesses that were bleeding jobs unleashed the longest streak of job creation on record. The auto industry has roared its way back, saving one million jobs across the country and fueling a manufacturing sector that, after a decade of decline, has added new jobs for the first time since the 1990s. And wages have grown faster over the past few years than at any time in the past forty.
Today, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, another 20 million American adults know the financial security and peace of mind that comes with health insurance. Another three million children have gained health insurance. For the first time ever, more than ninety percent of Americans are insured – the highest rate ever. We’ve seen the slowest growth in the price of health care in fifty years, along with improvements in patient safety that have prevented an estimated 87,000 deaths. Every American with insurance is covered by the strongest set of consumer protections in history – a true Patients’ Bill of Rights – and free from the fear that illness or accident will derail your dreams, because America is now a place where discrimination against preexisting conditions is a relic of the past. And the new health insurance marketplace means that if you lose your job, change your job, or start that new business, you’ll finally be able to purchase quality, affordable care and the security and peace of mind that comes with it – and that’s one reason why entrepreneurship is growing for the second straight year.
Our dependence on foreign oil has been cut by more than half, and our production of renewable energy has more than doubled. In many places across the country, clean energy from the wind is now cheaper than dirtier sources of energy, and solar now employs more Americans than coal mining in jobs that pay better than average and can’t be outsourced. We also enacted the most sweeping reforms since the Great Depression to protect consumers and prevent a crisis on Wall Street from punishing Main Street ever again. These actions didn’t stifle growth, as critics predicted. Instead, the stock market has nearly tripled. Since I signed Obamacare into law, America’s businesses have added more than 15 million new jobs. And the economy is undoubtedly more durable than it was in the days when we relied on oil from unstable nations and banks took risky bets with your money.
The high school graduation rate is now 83 percent – the highest on record – and we’ve helped more young people graduate from college than ever before. At the same time, we’ve worked to offer more options for Americans who decide not to pursue college, from expanding apprenticeships, to launching high-tech manufacturing institutes, to revamping the job training system and creating programs like TechHire to help people train for higher-paying jobs in months, not years. We’ve connected more schools across the country to broadband internet, and supported more teachers to bring coding, hands-on making, and computational thinking into our classrooms to prepare all our children for a 21st century economy.
Add it all up, and last year, the poverty rate fell at the fastest rate in almost fifty years while the median household income grew at the fastest rate on record. And we’ve done it all while cutting our deficits by nearly two-thirds even as we protected investments that grow the middle class.
Meanwhile, over the past eight years, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland. Plots have been disrupted. Terrorists like Osama bin Laden have been taken off the battlefield. We’ve drawn down from nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan to just 15,000. With a coalition of more than 70 nations and a relentless campaign of more than 16,000 airstrikes so far, we are breaking the back of ISIL and taking away its safe havens, and we’ve accomplished this at a cost of $10 billion over two years – the same amount that we spent in one month at the height of the Iraq War.
At the same time, America has led the world to meet a set of global challenges. Through diplomacy, we shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program, opened up a new chapter with the people of Cuba, and brought nearly 200 nations together around a climate agreement that could save this planet for our kids. With new models for development, American assistance is helping people around the world feed themselves, care for their sick, and power communities across Africa. And almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago. All of this progress is due to the service of millions of Americans in intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, diplomacy, and the brave men and women of our Armed Forces – the most diverse institution in America.
We’ve also worked to make the changing face of America more fair and more just – including by making strides towards criminal justice reform, making progress towards equal pay, repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and advancing the cause of civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. I appointed two extraordinary women to the Supreme Court, marking the first time in history that three women sit on the bench, including the first Latina. And today in America, marriage equality is finally a reality across all fifty states.
This is where America stands after eight years of progress. By so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started – a situation I’m proud to leave for my successor. And it’s thanks to you – to the hard work you’ve put in; the sacrifices you’ve made for your families and communities; the way you’ve looked out for one another.
Still, through every victory and every setback, I’ve insisted that change is never easy, and never quick; that we wouldn’t meet all of our challenges in one term, or one presidency, or even in one lifetime. And for all that we’ve achieved, there’s still so much I wish we’d been able to do, from enacting gun safety measures to protect more of our kids and our cops from mass shootings like Newtown, to passing commonsense immigration reform that encourages the best and brightest from around the world to study, stay, and create jobs in America.
And for all the incredible progress our economy has made in just eight years, we still have more work to do for every American still in need of a good job or a raise, paid leave or a dignified retirement. We have to acknowledge the inequality that has come from an increasingly globalized economy while committing ourselves to making it work better for everyone, not just those at the top, and give everyone who works hard a fair shot at success.
And here’s the thing – over the past eight years, we’ve shown that we can. Last year, income gains were actually larger for households at the bottom and the middle than for those at the top. We’ve also made the tax code fairer. The tax changes enacted over the past eight years have ensured that the top one percent of Americans pay more of their fair share, increasing the share of income received by all other families by more than the tax changes in any previous administration since at least 1960. Simply put, we’ve actually begun the long task of reversing inequality. But as the global economy changes, we’ll have to do more to accelerate these trends, from strengthening unions that speak for workers, to preventing colleges from pricing out hardworking students, to making sure that minimum wage workers get a raise and women finally get paid the same as men for doing the same job. What won’t help is taking health care away from 30 million Americans, most of them white and working class; denying overtime pay to workers, most of whom have more than earned it; or privatizing Medicare and Social Security and letting Wall Street regulate itself again – none of which middle-class Americans voted for.
We will have to move forward as we always have – together. As a people who believe that out of many, we are one; that we are bound not by any one race or religion, but rather an adherence to a common creed; that all of us are created equal in the eyes of God. And I’m confident we will. Because the change we’ve brought about these past eight years was never about me. It was about you. It is you, the American people, who have made the progress of the last eight years possible. It is you who will make our future progress possible. That, after all, is the story of America – a story of progress. However halting, however incomplete, however harshly challenged at each point on our journey – the story of America is a story of progress.
Recently, I asked each member of my talented and dedicated Cabinet to prepare a detailed report on the progress we’ve made across the board these past eight years, and the work that remains to make this country we love even stronger. Today, I’m sharing them with you. And I hope you’ll share them with others, and do your part to build on the progress we’ve made across the board.
It has been the privilege of my life to serve as your President. And as I prepare to pass the baton and do my part as a private citizen, I’m proud to say that we have laid a new foundation for America. A new future is ours to write. And I’m as confident as ever that it will be led by the United States of America – and that our best days are still ahead.
On January 10, P resident Barack Obama returned to his adopted hometown of Chicago to deliver his farewell address to the nation in a way and a venue that had never been done before. In many ways, the speech neatly bookended the beginning of his career in national politics, starting with the 2004 breakthrough speech to the Democratic National Convention, continuing through the 2008 campaign. The themes, the earnest desire to do all he could to bring the country together, to make progress on behalf of all Americans, were all there. The speech was at once extraordinarily realistic and pragmatic yet idealistic, devoid of the cynicism that he would have been entitled to after all the obstacles, the vicious attacks, the nonstop efforts to delegitimize his presidency and demean him. He rose above it all, clinging to the values and principles which he holds most dear, exemplifying the very model of a national leader.
Without dwelling on it, he addressed the despair and despondency of millions and millions of Americans that he will be succeeded by someone who is diametrically opposite and opposed. The fear is that his legacy – record growth in jobs creation, wage increases, historic health care, historic international agreements on climate change, historic progress on civil rights – will all be erased. But he exhorted those who believe in progress to soldier on, to participate, to be engaged. Instead of complaining, run for office. Characteristically, he gave only brief mention of his achievements during his 8 years in office – not the least saving the nation from falling into a Great Depression, extracting us from two foreign wars, addressing numerous climate and environmental catastrophes and emergencies ranging from swine flu to Ebola, to terrorism. With great humility of a truly great and exceptional man, he thanked his Vice President Joe Biden, his wife,First Lady Michelle Obama and his children, his white House staff, those who worked and volunteered for his elections, and said he was about to resume the most cherished position of all: citizen.
And like Washington’s farewell speech, exhorting Americans to be vigilant against foreign interference, and Eisenhower’s farewell speech, warning about the military-industrial complex, Obama offered his own warning: to be vigilant in protecting democracy from enemies, foreign and domestic who would undermine the very values and principles that are foundational, and that vigilance is the responsibility of all citizens.
“The future should be ours,” Obama exhorted. “But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now…
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning. With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured…
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen….
“I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.”
Here is a highlighted transcript of the speech, which took just under an hour to deliver – Karen Rubin, News & Photo Features
THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Chicago! (Applause.) It’s good to be home! (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Thank you. (Applause.) All right, everybody sit down. (Applause.) We’re on live TV here. I’ve got to move. (Applause.) You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions. (Laughter.) Everybody have a seat. (Applause.)
My fellow Americans — (applause) — Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well wishes that we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks. (Applause.) Whether we have seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, in living rooms and in schools, at farms, on factory floors, at diners and on distant military outposts -– those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man. (Applause.)
So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.
AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!
THE PRESIDENT: I can’t do that.
AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!
THE PRESIDENT: This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.
After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea –- our bold experiment in self-government. It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.
What a radical idea. A great gift that our Founders gave to us: The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.
For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. (Applause.) It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima, Iraq and Afghanistan. And why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs, as well. (Applause.)
So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional — not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow. Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It’s always been contentious. Sometimes it’s been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some. (Applause.)
If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — (applause) — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11 — (applause) — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens –- (applause) — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did. (Applause.) That’s what you did.
You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started. (Applause.)
In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy.
AUDIENCE: Nooo —
THE PRESIDENT: No, no, no, no, no — the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected President to the next. (Applause.) I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. (Applause.) Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.
We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth. Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. (Applause.) Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.
That’s what I want to focus on tonight: The state of our democracy. Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued. They quarreled. Eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity -– the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one. (Applause.)
There have been moments throughout our history that threatens that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism -– these forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy, as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland. In other words, it will determine our future.
To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again. (Applause.) The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. (Applause.) Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said and I mean it — if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it. (Applause.)
Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit, but to make people’s lives better. (Applause.)
But for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class. (Applause.) That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal.While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and in rural counties, have been left behind — the laid-off factory worker; the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills — convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful — that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.
But there are no quick fixesto this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.
And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need — (applause) — to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now, and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible. (Applause.)
We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.
There’s a second threat to our democracy — and this one is as old as our nation itself. After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. Now, I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say. (Applause.) You can see it not just in statistics, you see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.
But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do. (Applause.) If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. (Applause.) If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce. (Applause.) And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.
So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system. (Applause.) That is what our Constitution and our highest ideals require. (Applause.)
But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction — Atticus Finch — (applause) — who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen. (Applause.)
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s — (applause) — that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised. (Applause.)
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles — who it was said we’re going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened. (Applause.)
So regardless of the station that we occupy, we all have to try harder. We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own. (Applause.)
And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste — all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there. (Applause.)
And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. But politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter — (applause) — then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible. (Applause.)
And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations? (Applause.) How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating. Because, as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you. (Applause.)
Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil; we’ve doubled our renewable energy; we’ve led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet. (Applause.) But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects: more environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.
Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country — the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders. (Applause.)
It is that spirit, born of the Enlightenment, that made us an economic powerhouse — the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.
It’s that spirit — a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might — that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression; that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but built on principles — the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and an independent press. (Applause.)
That order is now being challenged — first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets and open democracies and and civil society itself as a threat to their power. The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile. It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.
Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform, because of our intelligence officers, and law enforcement, and diplomats who support our troops — (applause) — no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years. (Applause.) And although Boston and Orlando and San Bernardino and Fort Hood remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever. We have taken out tens of thousands of terrorists — including bin Laden. (Applause.) The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders, and taken away about half their territory. ISIL will be destroyed, and no one who threatens America will ever be safe. (Applause.)
And to all who serve or have served, it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your Commander-in-Chief. And we all owe you a deep debt of gratitude. (Applause.)
But protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. (Applause.)
And that’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. (Applause.) That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans, who are just as patriotic as we are. (Applause.)
That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights — to expand democracy, and human rights, and women’s rights, and LGBT rights. No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.
So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. (Applause.) ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight. (Applause.) Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for — (applause) — and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.
Which brings me to my final point: Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. (Applause.) All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. (Applause.) When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote. (Applause.) When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. (Applause.) When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our congressional districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes. (Applause.)
But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. (Applause.) We, the people, give it meaning. With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge. (Applause.) Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.
In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.” And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one. (Applause.)
America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them. (Applause.)
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. (Applause.) Citizen.
So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. (Applause.) If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. (Applause.) If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. (Applause.) Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.
Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed. (Applause.)
Mine sure has been. Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers. I have mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in a Charleston church. I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch. I’ve seen wounded warriors who at points were given up for dead walk again. I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees, or work for peace, and, above all, to look out for each other. (Applause.)
So that faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change — that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined. And I hope your faith has, too. Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004, in 2008, 2012 — (applause) — maybe you still can’t believe we pulled this whole thing off. Let me tell you, you’re not the only ones. (Laughter.)
Michelle — (applause) — Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side — (applause) — for the past 25 years, you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend. (Applause.) You took on a role you didn’t ask for and you made it your own, with grace and with grit and with style and good humor. (Applause.) You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. (Applause.) And the new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. (Applause.) So you have made me proud. And you have made the country proud. (Applause.)
Malia and Sasha, under the strangest of circumstances, you have become two amazing young women. You are smart and you are beautiful, but more importantly, you are kind and you are thoughtful and you are full of passion. (Applause.) You wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily. Of all that I’ve done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad. (Applause.)
To Joe Biden — (applause) — the scrappy kid from Scranton who became Delaware’s favorite son — you were the first decision I made as a nominee, and it was the best. (Applause.) Not just because you have been a great Vice President, but because in the bargain, I gained a brother. And we love you and Jill like family, and your friendship has been one of the great joys of our lives. (Applause.)
To my remarkable staff: For eight years — and for some of you, a whole lot more — I have drawn from your energy, and every day I tried to reflect back what you displayed — heart, and character, and idealism. I’ve watched you grow up, get married, have kids, start incredible new journeys of your own. Even when times got tough and frustrating, you never let Washington get the better of you. You guarded against cynicism. And the only thing that makes me prouder than all the good that we’ve done is the thought of all the amazing things that you’re going to achieve from here. (Applause.)
And to all of you out there — every organizer who moved to an unfamiliar town, every kind family who welcomed them in, every volunteer who knocked on doors, every young person who cast a ballot for the first time, every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change — you are the best supporters and organizers anybody could ever hope for, and I will be forever grateful. (Applause.) Because you did change the world. (Applause.) You did.
And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans, it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference — (applause) — to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.
Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America. (Applause.) You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands. (Applause.)
My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. (Applause.) I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can. (Applause.)
Yes, we did. Yes, we can. (Applause.)
Thank you. God bless you. May God continue to bless the United States of America. (Applause.)
The catastrophe in Syria is often leveled at President Obama as a horrible scar on his legacy. But what is ignored is the context, and also how Libya, which was an important achievement, was used as a weapon to attack Obama as well as Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
So it is rather remarkable that none of the news outlets are reporting a significant victory in Libya, routing out the last ISIS stronghold, in Sirte.
But to begin:
What is happening in Syria today is where Libya would have easily been, the scale of carnage that Syria turned into, if Obama had not intervened with a coalition of countries including Arab States. At the time, Republicans including Donald Trump, cheered. During the election, the action was demonized, and used in the incessant conspiracy harangue about Benghazi.
So it is really hypocritical that Obama is criticized for not intervening more strenuously in Syria, when in fact, he did all that he could do given the convoluted circumstances and inconvenient alliances and oppositions. Take Turkey, for instance, which opposed the Kurds and worked against the US support of Kurds against ISIS, but US needed access to Turkey’s bases from which to strike at ISIS and needed Turkey’s support of Syrian refugees. (These nuances go beyond Donald Trump’s comprehension.)
The red line that was crossed when Assad used chemical weapons? Recall that Obama was poised to strike, the military was on alert, but the cowardly Congress refused to give its Authorization of Military Force (progressives are still upset that Obama uses the Bush-era 9/11 authorization to go after ISIS). But still, Obama was able to get Assad to give up chemical weapons without the US firing a shot or a single troop sacrificed. How? Putin.
But what could not be anticipated was Russia assisting Assad in the massacre of the Syrian people. Putin, after all, claimed to be joining the coalition against ISIS. Instead, it was a rout of the moderate rebels fighting Assad. Would Americans have endorsed a war with Russia? Would Americans have supported sending 180,000 ground troops into Syria?
As for not providing enough aid to moderate rebels? There weren’t very many to be found – millions of dollars of supplies and only 50 “moderate rebels” identified. What would have happened if it was discovered the US thought it was supplying “moderate” rebels but actually the armaments went to ISIS fighters? Can you imagine?
“For years, we’ve worked to stop the civil war in Syria and alleviate human suffering,” President Obama said in his final press conference of 2017. “It has been one of the hardest issues that I’ve faced as president. The world as we speak is united in horror at the savage assault by the Syrian regime and its Russia and Iranian allies on the city of Aleppo. We have seen a deliberate strategy of surrounding and the seigeing and starving innocent civilians. We’ve seen relentless targeting of humanitarian workers and medical personnel, entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and dust…
“We all know what needs to happen. There needs to be an impartial international observer force in Aleppo that can help coordinate an orderly evacuation through safe corridors. There has to be full access for humanitarian aid, even as the United States continues to be the world’s largest donor of humanitarian to the Syrian people and beyond that, there needs to be a broader ceasefire that can serve as the basis for a political, rather than a military solution. That’s what the United States is going to continue to push for, both with our partners and through multilateral institutions like the UN.
“Regretfully but unsurprisingly, Russia has repeatedly blocked the security council from taking action on these issues so we’re going to keep pressing the security council to help improve the delivery of humanitarian to those who are in such desperate need and to ensure accountability, including continuing to monitor any potential use of chemical weapons in Syria. And we’re going work in the U.N. General assembly as well, both on accountability and to advance a political settlement because it should be clear that although you may achieve tactical victories over the long term, the Assad regime cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy. That’s why we’ll continue to press for a transition to a more representative government. And that’s why the world must not avert our eyes to the terrible events that are unfolding.
“The Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are trying to confiscate the truth. The world should not be fooled and the world will not forget.”
Meanwhile, the US was not exactly not doing anything in Syria. The US operated tens of thousands of air strikes against ISIS, and has been the largest donor of aid to Syrian refugees.
And the US has not stood idly by in Libya, either, but assisted in the liberation of Sirte from ISIL. The Administration issued this statement:
Statement by Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa O. Monaco on the Successful Operation to Liberate Sirte from ISIL
The United States congratulates the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan people on their successful operation to liberate Sirte from ISIL. The United States is proud to have supported the advance of the GNA-aligned forces into Sirte with precision airstrikes to eject ISIL from the only city that it controlled outside of Iraq and Syria.
We applaud the courage of the Libyan people, including the residents of Sirte, al-Bunyan al-Marsous forces, and others, who carried out this operation. We commend Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj for his leadership and dedication to the Libyan people. We also extend our sincerest and heartfelt condolences to the families of those who lost their lives fighting for this important cause.
The U.S. military conducted a carefully tailored counterterrorism operation, at the request of the GNA, to target ISIL while taking great care to minimize harm to civilians. This partnered operation has substantially reduced ISIL’s manpower in Libya, ended its brutal reign over Sirte’s population, and removed its primary base in Libya, dealing a blow to its ability to plot attacks in Libya and abroad. This progress comes as Libyans mark one year since the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement.
We know that ISIL will continue its attempts to terrorize the Libyan people and sow instability in North Africa, and that Libyan efforts against terrorism continue in other parts of Libya. We stand ready to help the GNA as it secures and rebuilds Sirte. The United States also remains committed to working with the GNA, Libyans throughout the country, and regional partners to counter ISIL and other violent extremist organizations.
President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union message, the last of his Administration, resounded like the Obama of 2008 and 2009 – the themes and tones of unity and his confidence in the spirit of the American people and the values that underlie this nation still dominant, his passion, energy and enthusiasm for his role as President and Commander-in-Chief roaring to the surface. But instead of being overtaken by cynicism under the unprecedented personal attacks and disrespect he has been shown since the very first State of the Union address in 2009, Obama seemed incredibly relaxed and comfortable in his own skin, still filled with optimism, excitement, if sharpened by his experience.
Here is President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address to the nation, highlighted:
9:10 P.M. EST
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, my fellow Americans:
Tonight marks the eighth year that I’ve come here to report on the State of the Union. And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it a little shorter. (Applause.) I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa. (Laughter.) I’ve been there. I’ll be shaking hands afterwards if you want some tips. (Laughter.)
And I understand that because it’s an election season, expectations for what we will achieve this year are low. But, Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the constructive approach that you and the other leaders took at the end of last year to pass a budget and make tax cuts permanent for working families. So I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform — (applause) — and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse. (Applause.) So, who knows, we might surprise the cynics again.
But tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead. Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty, from helping students learn to write computer code to personalizing medical treatments for patients. And I will keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done. Fixing a broken immigration system. (Applause.) Protecting our kids from gun violence. (Applause.) Equal pay for equal work. (Applause.) Paid leave. (Applause.) Raising the minimum wage. (Applause.) All these things still matter to hardworking families. They’re still the right thing to do. And I won’t let up until they get done.
But for my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to just talk about next year. I want to focus on the next five years, the next 10 years, and beyond. I want to focus on our future.
We live in a time of extraordinary change — change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet, our place in the world. It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.
America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of new immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change; who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the “dogmas of the quiet past.” Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before.
What was true then can be true now. Our unique strengths as a nation — our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery, our diversity, our commitment to rule of law — these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.
In fact, it’s in that spirit that we have made progress these past seven years. That’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. (Applause.) That’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector. (Applause.) That’s how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops coming home and our veterans. (Applause.) That’s how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love. (Applause.)
But such progress is not inevitable. It’s the result of choices we make together. And we face such choices right now. Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for, in the incredible things that we can do together?
So let’s talk about the future, and four big questions that I believe we as a country have to answer — regardless of who the next President is, or who controls the next Congress.
First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? (Applause.)
Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? (Applause.)
Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? (Applause.)
And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?
Let me start with the economy, and a basic fact: The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. (Applause.) We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private sector job creation in history. (Applause.) More than 14 million new jobs, the strongest two years of job growth since the ‘90s, an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever. (Applause.) That’s just part of a manufacturing surge that’s created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years. And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters. (Applause.)
Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction. (Applause.) Now, 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; changes that have not let up.
Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated. Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and they face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.
All these trends have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs; even when the economy is growing. It’s made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start their careers, tougher for workers to retire when they want to. And although none of these trends are unique to America, they do offend our uniquely American belief that everybody who works hard should get a fair shot.
For the past seven years,our goal has been a growing economy that works also better for everybody. We’ve made progress. But we need to make more. And despite all the political arguments that we’ve had these past few years, there are actually some areas where Americans broadly agree.
We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job. The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all and — (applause) — offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one. We should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids. (Applause.)
And we have to make college affordable for every American. (Applause.) No hardworking student should be stuck in the red. We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower’s income. And that’s good. But now, we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. (Applause.) Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year. (Applause.) It’s the right thing to do. (Applause.)
But a great education isn’t all we need in this new economy. We also need benefits and protections that provide a basic measure of security.It’s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package for 30 years are sitting in this chamber. (Laughter.) For everyone else, especially folks in their 40s and 50s, saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher. Americans understand that at some point in their careers, in this new economy, they may have to retool and they may have to retrain. But they shouldn’t lose what they’ve already worked so hard to build in the process.
That’s why Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever. We shouldn’t weaken them; we should strengthen them. (Applause.) And for Americans short of retirement, basic benefits should be just as mobile as everything else is today. That, by the way, is what the Affordable Care Act is all about. It’s about filling the gaps in employer-based care so that when you lose a job, or you go back to school, or you strike out and launch that new business, you’ll still have coverage.Nearly 18 million people have gained coverage so far. (Applause.) And in the process, health care inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law.
Now, I’m guessing we won’t agree on health care anytime soon. (Applause.) A little applause right there. Laughter.) Just a guess. But there should be other ways parties can work together to improve economic security. Say a hardworking American loses his job — we shouldn’t just make sure that he can get unemployment insurance; we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him. If that new job doesn’t pay as much, there should be a system of wage insurance in place so that he can still pay his bills. And even if he’s going from job to job, he should still be able to save for retirement and take his savings with him. That’s the way we make the new economy work better for everybody.
I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty. America is about giving everybody willing to work a chance, a hand up. And I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers who don’t have children. (Applause.)
But there are some areas where we just have to be honest — it has been difficult to find agreement over the last seven years. And a lot of them fall under the category of what role the government should play in making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations. (Applause.) And it’s an honest disagreement, and the American people have a choice to make.
I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy.I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed. There is red tape that needs to be cut. (Applause.) There you go! Yes! (Applause But after years now of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks just by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense. (Applause.) Middle-class families are not going to feel more secure because we allowed attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered.Food Stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. (Applause.) Immigrants aren’t the principal reason wages haven’t gone up; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all 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. (Applause.)
The point is, I believe that inthis In new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less.The rules should work for them. (Applause.) And I’m not alone in this. This year I plan to lift up the many businesses who’ve figured out that doing right by their workers or their customers or their communities ends up being good for their shareholders. (Applause.) And I want to spread those best practices across America. That’s part of a brighter future. (Applause.)
In fact, it turns out many of our best corporate citizens are also our most creative. And this brings me to the second big question we as a country have to answer: How do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?
Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. (Laughter.) We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight. And 12 years later, we were walking on the moon. (Applause.)
Now, that spirit of discovery is in our DNA.America is Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. America is Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. America is every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley, racing to shape a better world. (Applause.) That’s who we are.
And over the past seven years, we’ve nurtured that spirit. We’ve protected an open Internet, and taken bold new steps to get more students and low-income Americans online. (Applause.) We’ve launched next-generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day. But we can do so much more.
Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources that they’ve had in over a decade. (Applause.) So tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. (Applause.) For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all. (Applause.)
Medical research is critical. We need the same level of commitment when it comes to developing clean energy sources. (Applause.) Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it. (Applause.)
But even if — even if the planet wasn’t at stake, even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record — until 2015 turned out to be even hotter — why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future? (Applause.)
Listen, seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history. Here are the results. In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal — in jobs that pay better than average. We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy — something, by the way, that environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support. And meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth. (Applause.) Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either. (Applause.)
Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from old, dirtier energy sources. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future — especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. We do them no favor when we don’t show them where the trends are going. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. And that way, we put money back into those communities, and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system. (Applause.)
Now, none of this is going to happen overnight. And, yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo. But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, the planet we’ll preserve — that is the kind of future our kids and our grandkids deserve. And it’s within our grasp.
Climate change is just one of many issues where our security is linked to the rest of the world. And that’s why the third big question that we have to answer together is how to keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem.
I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. (Applause.) Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. (Applause.) It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. (Applause.) No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us. (Applause.)
I mean, it’s useful to level the set here, because when we don’t, we don’t make good decisions.
Now, as someone who begins every day with an intelligence briefing, I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not primarily because of some looming superpower out there, and certainly not because of diminished American strength.In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.
The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia. Economic headwinds are blowing in from a Chinese economy that is in significant transition. Even as their economy severely contracts, Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria — client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit. And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality.
It’s up to us, the United States of America, to help remake that system. And to do that well it means that we’ve got to set priorities.
Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. (Applause.) Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country. Their actions undermine and destabilize our allies. We have to take them out.
But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages — they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. (Applause.) That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions. (Applause.) We just need to call them what they are — killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed. (Applause.)
And that’s exactly what we’re doing. For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology. With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their weapons. We’re training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria.
If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote. (Applause.) Take a vote. But the American people should know that with or without congressional action, ISIL will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them. If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden. (Applause.) Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell. When you come after Americans, we go after you. (Applause.) And it may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limits. (Applause.)
Our foreign policy has to be focused on the threat from ISIL and al Qaeda, but it can’t stop there. For even without ISIL, even without al Qaeda, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world — in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia. Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks. Others will just fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees. The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and 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.
We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it’s done with the best of intentions. (Applause.) That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it’s the lesson of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now. (Applause.)
Fortunately, there is a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power. It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.
That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.
That’s why we built a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.And as we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war. (Applause.)
That’s how we stopped the spread of Ebola in West Africa. (Applause.) Our military, our doctors, our development workers — they were heroic; they set up the platform that then allowed other countries to join in behind us and stamp out that epidemic. Hundreds of thousands, maybe a couple million lives were saved.
That’s how we forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open markets, and protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia. It cuts 18,000 taxes on products made in America, which will then support more good jobs here in America. With TPP, China does not set the rules in that region; we do. You want to show our strength in this new century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it. It’s the right thing to do. (Applause.)
Let me give you another example. Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, and set us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations — (applause) — opened the door to travel and commerce, positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. (Applause.) So if you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere, recognize that the Cold War is over — lift the embargo. (Applause.)
The point is American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world — except when we kill terrorists — or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling. Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right. It means seeing our foreign assistance as a part of our national security, not something separate, not charity.
When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change, yes, that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our kids. When we help Ukraine defend its democracy, or Colombia resolve a decades-long war, that strengthens the international order we depend on. When we help African countries feed their people and care for the sick — (applause) — it’s the right thing to do, and it prevents the next pandemic from reaching our shores. Right now, we’re on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS. That’s within our grasp. (Applause.) And we have the chance to accomplish the same thing with malaria — something I’ll be pushing this Congress to fund this year. (Applause.)
That’s American strength. That’s American leadership. And that kind of leadership depends on the power of our example. That’s why I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo. (Applause.) It is expensive, it is unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies. (Applause.) There’s a better way. (Applause.)
And that’s why we need to reject any politics — any politics — that targets people because of race or religion. (Applause.) Let me just say this. This is not a matter of political correctness. This is a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity, and our openness, and the way we respect every faith.
His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot that I’m standing on tonight that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. (Applause.) It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country. (Applause.)
“We the People.” Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together, and that’s how we might perfect our Union. And that brings me to the fourth, and maybe the most important thing that I want to say tonight.
The future we want — all of us want — opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids — all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.
A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country — different regions, different attitudes, different interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, fiercely, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.
But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.
Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
But, my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task — or any President’s — alone. There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber, good people who would like to see more cooperation, would like to see a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the imperatives of getting elected, by the noise coming out of your base. I know; you’ve told me. It’s the worst-kept secret in Washington. And a lot of you aren’t enjoying being trapped in that kind of rancor.
But that means if we want a better politics — and I’m addressing the American people now — if we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. (Applause.) Let a bipartisan group do it. (Applause.)
We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections. (Applause.) And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution — because it’s a problem. And most of you don’t like raising money. I know; I’ve done it. (Applause.) We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder. (Applause.) We need to modernize it for the way we live now. (Applause.) This is America: We want to make it easier for people to participate. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do just that.
But I can’t do these things on my own. (Applause.) Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected, but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It depends on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.
What I’m suggesting is hard. It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless, and the problem is all the folks who are elected don’t care, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.
We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want. It will not produce the security we want. But most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.
So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, whether you supported my agenda or fought as hard as you could against it — our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. (Applause.) We need every American to stay active in our public life — and not just during election time — so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day.
It is not easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born, not as Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.
And they’re out there, those voices. They don’t get a lot of attention; they don’t seek a lot of fanfare; but they’re busy doing the work this country needs doing. I see them everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours. I see you, the American people. And in your daily acts of citizenship, I see our future unfolding.
I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages instead of laying him off.
I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late at night to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early, and maybe with some extra supplies that she bought because she knows that that young girl might someday cure a disease.
I see it in the American who served his time, and bad mistakes as a child but now is dreaming of starting over — and I see it in the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters — and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe. (Applause.)
I see it in the soldier who gives almost everything to save his brothers, the nurse who tends to him till he can run a marathon, the community that lines up to cheer him on.
It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught. (Applause.)
I see it in the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to; the new citizen who casts his vote for the first time; the volunteers at the polls who believe every vote should count — because each of them in different ways know how much that precious right is worth.
That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. (Applause.) That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.
And that’s why I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong. (Applause.)
Thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)
For the President’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, the individuals who will be seated in the guest box of First Lady Michelle Obama are intended to represent the progress Barack Obama has made since he first delivered this speech seven years ago – “from the brink of a second Great Depression and two costly wars to an economy that is growing and renewed American leadership abroad.”
“Their stories – of struggle and success – highlight where we have been and where America is going in the future, building on the best of what our country has to offer,” the White House said. “he guests personify President Obama’s time in office and most importantly, they represent who we are as Americans: inclusive and compassionate, innovative and courageous.”
But one seat is being left vacant for all the victims of gun violence – to dramatize what has been the most frustrating unfulfilled goal of his administration. Last week, the President took a series of commonsense steps to help reduce gun violence in America and make our communities safer.
“We leave one seat empty in the First Lady’s State of the Union Guest Box for the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice – because they need the rest of us to speak for them,” the White House stated. “To tell their stories. To honor their memory. To support the Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the terrible ripple effect of gun violence – survivors who’ve had to learn to live with a disability, or without the love of their life. To remind every single one of our representatives that it’s their responsibility to do something about this.”
The invitees who will sit in the box with the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden and Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, at the State of the Union Address on Tuesday include:
Sue Ellen Allen (Scottsdale, AZ)
Criminal Justice Reform
Sue Ellen Allen knows the difficulties that formerly incarcerated individuals face after prison – both as the co-founder of a nonprofit helping inmates reenter society and as a former inmate starting over after her release in 2009. Her organization, Gina’s Team, supports women in Arizona prisons and upon release, gives them the resources they need and teaches them how give back to the community. Named for her cellmate in prison who died in incarceration, Sue Ellen started Gina’s Team with Gina’s parents in an effort to provide women a path out of prison, back into the community and out of additional trouble with the law. She wrote the President to thank him for the launch of a new pilot program that enables incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and to encourage a national dialog that includes women in prison reform. Sue Ellen is proud to be accompanied to Washington by Gina’s mother, Diane, whose daughter gave her a renewed purpose in life.
Gloria Balenski (Schaumburg, IL)
Like many American families during the Great Recession, Gloria and Norb Balenski faced real economic struggles: Gloria lost her job after 34 years at a major electronics company, the money they invested for their son’s college dried up in the free-falling stock market, and Norb’s job at Chevrolet was threatened when the auto industry cratered. But the actions the President took when he came into office to pull us away from the brink of depression and to secure quality, affordable health care for millions of Americans, helped safeguard Norb’s job and his health insurance. And just in time as he suffered a major heart attack in 2012, racking up $400,000 in medical bills. Gloria and Norb wrote the President a letter last year thanking him for the economic priorities he pursued at a time of turmoil, which Gloria credits with helping her family to bounce back. Today, Gloria is retired, her husband has recovered, and her son recently married, has a job and purchased a new home.
Jennifer Bragdon (Austin, TX)
Community College Student
Jennifer Bragdon’s story showcases how community colleges can adapt to the needs of students. Jennifer, 42, and her husband, George, work full time to pay for bills and provide childcare for their one-year-old daughter, and Jennifer’s other responsibilities restrict her to one class at a time. Even though she won’t graduate for a few more years, she plans to complete her degree and become a middle school teacher. She enrolled in a new developmental math course at Austin Community College (ACC) after being out of a traditional classroom for more than 20 years, and has now successfully completed her college algebra requirements. In March, Dr. Biden met Jennifer at ACC and learned about the campus’ high-tech learning lab that provides more than 600 computer stations for individualized learning and small group sessions, highlighting the ways community colleges are providing flexibility and support for students to stay on track to earn their degrees. Jennifer works as a massage therapist and lives in Austin, Texas with her family.
Edith Childs (Greenwood, SC)
Greenwood County Councilmember
When then-Senator Obama visited a June 2007 campaign stop in Greenwood, South Carolina, a small group of 38 supporters captured the enthusiasm and drive that defined the election. And Edith Childs, a Greenwood County Councilmember, summed up the passion with a simple chant: “Fired up! Ready to go!” When she noticed Senator Obama’s surprise at a fairly small gathering, she sought to energize the crowd calling out, “Fired up!” to which they replied “Fired up!” “Ready to go!” she countered. This call and response captivated larger and larger crowds, and became widely recognized as the unofficial slogan of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. In December 2009, President Obama invited Edith to the White House for the first holiday celebration hosted by the Obamas in recognition of her ability to distill the enthusiasm that helped carry him to the White House. Edith lives in Greenwood with her husband, Charles. They have three children and six grandchildren.
Cynthia “Cindy” K. Dias (Las Vegas, NV)
Veteran, Veterans Homelessness Advocate
Cynthia “Cindy” K. Dias is a Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War in a hospital ship as a registered nurse. She managed care for wounded soldiers, and worked alongside the Chaplin as the designated official to provide notification and care for families of wounded and deceased officers. After her service, she worked as a registered nurse in Florida and Louisiana and eventually moved to Las Vegas, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and lost her job before eventually also losing her home. She found a place to live at Veterans Village, a non-profit working with the city of Las Vegas to provide resources for homeless veterans. She now volunteers with Veterans Village, and she works to care and advocate for veterans in the city. In November 2015, Las Vegas announced it had housed every homeless veteran as part of the Administration’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. This challenge was launched in 2014 by First Lady Michelle Obama as part the First Lady and Dr. Biden’s Joining Forces initiative.
Mark Davis (Washington, D.C.)
Small Business Owner
A former basketball player in Washington, D.C., Mark Davis was inspired by the President’s focus on climate change to do something to protect the planet and help his community. Mark took classes, got certified, and started a small business that trains low-income individuals to install solar panels and prepares community members for local green tech jobs. Mark’s company, WDC Solar, is growing, profitable, and giving back. Since 2012, WDC has installed more than 125 solar systems in D.C. at no cost to homeowners with good credit through tax credits and private funds. One of Mark’s proudest moments was working with D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility to start a low-income program that has provided funding to install panels on more than 300 homes. And once the panels are installed, the extra power results in a profit every month – money going back into the community he’s working to transform. In 2016 he plans to implement similar programs in New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Cary Dixon (Huntington, WV)
Mother, Opioid Reform Advocate
In October, Cary Dixon joined the President at a community forum in Charleston, West Virginia, on the opioid epidemic and spoke candidly about the struggles of having an adult child with a substance use disorder. Prescription drug abuse and heroin use have taken a heartbreaking toll on too many Americans and their families, while straining law enforcement and treatment programs. The President believes that resources should be put toward preventing substance use disorders from developing and getting effective treatment to those who need it. As many families have learned, substance use disorders do not discriminate and Cary has turned her experience into action, speaking up for those who are often too stigmatized to say anything. “For too long, we’ve been silent,” she told the panel. “And I think that is holding us back. We need to open our voices so that people don’t feel ashamed. This is a disease. It is a sickness.”
Lydia Doza (Klamath Falls, OR // Anchorage, AK)
College Student, STEM Advocate
Originally from Anchorage, Lydia Doza’s upbringing in three Alaskan tribes – Inupiaq, Tsimshian, and Haida – as well as her grandmother Joanne’s influence taught her the value of an education and the importance of mentorship. She discovered her passion for engineering early on through her high school robotics team, and, through her involvement with the Administration’s Generation Indigenous initiative to support Native American youth, she’s engaging with rural youth in disciplines across the STEM fields to apply their skills and education. Lydia, 24, is currently pursuing a degree in software engineering technology at Oregon Tech, where she’s also an event organizer for Engineering Ambassadors, which focuses on outreach to kids as young as three years old through high school to encourage a career in engineering. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree, Lydia hopes to work full time as a software engineer while continuing her involvement in the community to promote the importance of STEM and higher education. Lydia ultimately hopes to pursue a master’s degree in data science and encourage more women to go into STEM. Lydia’s mother, Maria Graham, and two brothers, Dorien and Leland, live in Wasilla, Alaska.
Refaai Hamo (Troy, MI)
Growing up in Syria, Refaai Hamo lived what seemed to be the kind of life associated with the American Dream – the son of a farmer and housewife, he worked construction at night to pay his way through college on his way to a PhD, married his college sweetheart and built a family together. This life and happiness changed forever when a Syrian government anti-personnel missile tore through the complex Refaai designed and where his family lived; in total seven of his family members died, including his wife and one daughter. After the bombing, he fled to Turkey but couldn’t make a living without a residence permit and was diagnosed with stomach cancer in a country where he couldn’t seek treatment without insurance or health benefits. After two years in Turkey, he received refugee status to move to Troy, Michigan. Refaai’s story was featured on the website Humans of New York, where he received an outpouring of support and sympathy – including from the President. The President wrote in response to his story, “Welcome to your new home. You’re part of what makes America great.” Refaai arrived in Detroit with his three daughters and son on December 18, and like other families displaced from their homeland, they hope to find a new one in America.
Lisa Jaster (Houston, TX)
Major, U.S. Army Reserve, Ranger School Graduate
Major Lisa Jaster became the first female Army Reserve officer to graduate from the Ranger School, the elite leadership course of the Army. The 37-year-old engineer and mother of two is only the third woman to graduate from Ranger School, which began including female soldiers last year following an Administration directive to lift the ban on women in combat. Lisa graduated from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York in 2000. She was on active duty for seven years and deployed in support of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom before leaving active duty in 2007 to work at Shell Oil Co. In 2012, Lisa returned to service, joining the U.S. Army Reserve, and took a leave of absence from Shell last April to pursue Ranger School. She is married to a Marine with whom she has two children, aged seven and three.
Mayor Mark Luttrell (Shelby County, TN)
Shelby County Mayor
Throughout his career in public service, Republican Mayor Mark Luttrell has built partnerships with local, state and federal agencies, and his unique background has focused him on criminal justice reform. As mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee, he helped create specialty courts for drug, mental health, and veterans’ cases to provide resources for effective rehabilitation instead of ineffectual incarceration. The county also put in place measures to reduce recidivism by streamlining and pooling resources to better provide formerly incarcerated individuals with the tools they need to re-enter society. Afterward, he was appointed as Director of Corrections for Shelby County, Tennessee and served there until he was elected Sheriff in 2002 and subsequently as Mayor in 2010. Mayor Lutrell and his wife, Pat, have three children and six grandchildren.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (Hartford, CT)
Currently in his second term as Governor of Connecticut, Dannel P. Malloy has pursued many of the progressive priorities that the President laid out to make America stronger. From his criminal justice reforms, including a “Second Chance Society” initiative that emphasizes successfully reintegrating individuals with nonviolent offenses into society, to common-sense gun safety laws following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Gov. Malloy has balanced important social reforms with strong economic priorities: Connecticut led America as the first state in the country to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and pass legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave. Gov. Malloy also oversaw the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act, driving down the state’s uninsured rate to historic lows and delivered the best job growth since the 1990s. Gov. Malloy and his wife, Cathy, have three sons, Dannel, Ben and Sam.
Braeden Mannering (Bear, DE)
After attending the White House Kids’ “State Dinner” as part of Let’s Move! and hearing the President and First Lady’s challenge for kids to make a difference in their own communities, Braeden Mannering, 12, was inspired to act. Braeden started his own nonprofit, Brae’s Brown Bags (3B), which provides healthy food to homeless and low-income individuals in his community. His mission is also to raise awareness about the problems of food insecurity and poverty, and to empower and inspire youth across the nation to become part of the solution. To date, Braeden has activated more than 2,600 volunteers, provided more than 4,500 “brown bags” of healthy food, and raised more than $52,000 for hunger relief. He co-hosted the first “hunger conference” in Delaware to include youth, and he continues to spread his mission in Delaware and other states, speaking at schools, conferences, and legislative sessions. Braeden is in sixth grade at Gauger-Cobbs Middle School and lives in Bear, Delaware with his mother Christy, stepfather Brian, brother Finnegan and sister Amelia. Braeden’s father, Michael, his fiancée Jennifer and their son Michael live in Middletown, Delaware.
Satya Nadella (Bellevue, WA)
Satya Nadella is Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, a position he’s held since February 2014 at the company he joined in 1992. Microsoft has been a leader in expanding access to computer science in K-12 classrooms, and in Teach.org, a private public partnership to increase awareness of and support for the teaching profession. In September, the company announced a new $75 million effort to expand computer science education, including opportunities for engineers from Microsoft and other companies with teachers to team-teach computer science. In October 2015, under Satya’s leadership, Microsoft increased its paid leave benefits by eight weeks and now includes 20 weeks of paid leave for new mothers and 12 weeks for non-birth parents. Originally from Hyderabad, India, Satya received a master’s in computer science and a master’s in business administration from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and University of Chicago, respectively. Satya and his wife, Anupuma, have three children.
Jim Obergefell (Cincinnati, OH)
Jim Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the landmark marriage equality case Obergefell v. Hodges, which ruled same-sex couples nationwide have the Constitutional right to marry. In 2013, Jim married his partner of 20 years, John, who was dying of ALS. Their marriage – performed in Maryland – wasn’t recognized in their home state of Ohio, setting off a legal proceeding over whether the marriage should be recognized under Ohio law and listed on John’s death certificate. While they won the initial legal battle, Ohio appealed, and their case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which declared marriage equality the law of the land. Jim considers himself an accidental activist, one who became entwined in a political statement larger than himself – a statement of equality and dignity that Americans have been fighting for since this nation’s founding – and he now remains committed to ensuring the civil rights for all Americans.
Chief Kathleen O’Toole (Seattle, WA)
Police Chief, Community Policing
Since 2014, Chief Kathleen O’Toole has led the Seattle Police Department in developing its approach to community policing, and her focus on improving officer morale, implementing new policies and optimizing department resources has received national attention. Under her leadership, the department tested a six-month pilot program for body-worn police cameras focused on public transparency, and the Department of Justice awarded the department a $600,000 grant to expand the program. Last year, the Seattle Police Department presented its policies at the White House Police Data Initiative as part of its renewed emphasis on accountability and transparency. Prior to Kathleen’s role as Chief, she served as Chief Inspector of the Gardia Síochána Inspectorate in Ireland, responsible for developing best practices of the Irish police service and rose the ranks of Massachusetts law enforcement, finishing as the first female Boston police commissioner in 2004. Chief O’Toole is married to a retired police detective, Dan O’Toole, and they have a daughter, Meghan.
Ryan Reyes (San Bernardino, CA)
Ryan Reyes’s partner Larry “Daniel” Kaufman was one of the 14 victims of the December 2 terrorist attack at Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. Daniel was a job trainer for adults with developmental disabilities at the Coffee N More shop, and he was on his lunch break at the time of the attack. He is credited with saving the lives of four people when he warned others, urging them to safety, before being shot and killed in the attack. Since Daniel’s death, Ryan, 32, has been vocal about the need for tolerance of all and rejection of the radicalized. “I speak for both Daniel and myself when I say that this attack should NOT encourage people to treat Muslims any differently than they would anyone else,” he wrote to media in the aftermath of the attack. “The twisted actions and beliefs of a few should not be used to view the majority.”
Ronna Rice (Greeley, CO)
Small Business Owner
A family-operated company since 1924 across five generations, Rice’s Lucky Clover Honey specializes in American raw and unfiltered honey for export globally. As CEO, Ronna Rice leads the business. The company has expanded across the U.S. and around the world, most recently in Japan, South Korea and China, allowing the company to grow domestically and hire more employees. Rice’s Lucky Clover Honey has export sales per year of about $500,000, and the 15 jobs in the company are supported by those exports. The company is based in Greeley, Colorado, and Ronna runs the company with her husband Jim, their three children, their son-in-law and a family friend.
Cedric Rowland (Chicago, IL)
Cedric Rowland is the lead navigator for Near North Health Service Corporation in Chicago. Working with people to find the best plans available at a price they can afford, Affordable Care Act navigators help people across the country take advantage of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, and are part of the success of the law. Since November 1, 2015, nearly 11.3 million consumers – more than 3 million of them new customers – have signed up for health care in this open enrollment alone. Our uninsured rate is at the lowest rate on record, coverage is affordable, and we’re seeing a historic slowdown in the growth of health care costs. Cedric’s role in this progress can be seen in the story of Stephanie Lucas. Stephanie has diabetes and no longer qualified for Medicaid, but with Cedric’s help she transitioned to a Marketplace plan that met her needs and let her keep her doctor at a price she could afford – $62 a month after tax credits. Stephanie will watch the State of the Union from the White House. She thanks Cedric, and navigators like him, for helping Americans enroll in quality, affordable health care under the Affordable Care Act. Cedric is a new father of a baby girl.
Naveed Shah (Springfield, VA)
U.S. Army Veteran
Naveed Shah, originally from Saudi Arabia, grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Springfield, Virginia after immigrating to the United States with his Pakistani parents. Like many immigrants who arrive here as children, Naveed noted that his birth country felt foreign while America is home. The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 marked the ultimate distortion of Naveed’s faith – something he set out to combat, enlisting in the U.S. Army in 2006. He served our country for four years and deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Naveed returned to his hometown in 2010 for college and to work with veterans groups assisting in the transition between military and civilian life. When not volunteering, Naveed works as a real estate agent in Virginia and lives with his fiancé, Ashley, and 7-year-old son, Yusuf.
Earl Smith (Austin, TX)
Earl Smith first met then-Senator Barack Obama in February 2008 on the campaign trail at the Austin Hyatt Regency where he worked as the director of security. Encountering him in an elevator, Earl gave the Senator a military patch he had worn serving with an artillery brigade in Vietnam that sustained 10,041 casualties and received 13 Medals of Honor. Smith had held onto his patch for 40 years – from Vietnam, to his 1977 pardon after three years in prison for a wrongful conviction, to global work in the hospitality industry – before parting with it in the elevator that day. Then-Senator Obama carried the patch in his pocket for the rest of the campaign, but Earl had no idea of the impact his story had on the President until he heard it directly from him in the Oval Office in 2013. The patch will be archived in the Obama Library – a reminder of the people who made up the movement that led the President to the White House. Earl and his wife of nearly 35 years, Claudia, have two children.
Spencer Stone (Sacramento, CA)
Staff Sergeant, U.S. Air Force
While on a Paris-bound train with his childhood friends Anthony Sadler and U.S. Army Specialist Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone made headlines worldwide in August when the three Americans prevented a potentially catastrophic act of terrorism. Spencer, his two friends and a fourth British passenger subdued a gunman armed with a box cutter, a pistol, a can of lighter fluid, and an assault rifle with 300 rounds of ammunition as he tried to open fire aboard the crowded train. While restraining the suspect who repeatedly slashed with the box cutter, Spencer incurred injury to his neck and hand, nearly losing his finger, and upon return to the United States received a Purple Heart, the Airman’s Medal, and a promotion to Staff Sergeant. The President invited the three friends to the White House where he thanked them in person for saving so many lives and for representing the U.S. with heroism and humility. The 23-year-old EMT hopes to continue his work in medicine and lives in Sacramento, California.
Oscar Vazquez (Fort Worth, TX)
Veteran, DREAMer, STEM leader
Like many DREAMers, Oscar came to the United States as a child in search of a better life. From age 12 when he moved from Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona, Oscar excelled in the classroom. He excelled as a STEM student at Carl Hayden High School and led an unlikely and inspiring story of a group of under-resourced Hispanic high school students who took on an MIT team in an underwater robotics competition and won. That opportunity led to a college education in the STEM field, earning a B.S.E. in mechanical engineering from Arizona State University in May 2009. But without legal status, he couldn’t secure a job to provide for his new wife and newborn child. He returned to Mexico to apply for a visa, and with help from Sen. Dick Durbin, who spoke from the Senate Floor about Oscar’s case, he was granted a green card in August 2010. Six months later, Oscar enlisted in the Army to serve the country he loves and calls home. Oscar served one tour in Afghanistan and is now a proud U.S. citizen. He now works for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railways as a business analyst in a web app development team, and is a passionate advocate on behalf on expanding STEM opportunities for Latino and other under-represented youth.
Information about these guests and news about the State of the Union is available at WhiteHouse.gov/SOTU.