President Obama delivered his final State of the Union from the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday night, reflecting on what he views as his greatest lasting achievements – including advances in health care reform, marriage equality, and economic growth – and calling for Democrats and Republicans to come together to solve the biggest challenges facing the United States.
He also announced a new national effort that both parties can no doubt get behind: finding a cure for cancer. Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer at 46 last May, to head up the mission.
“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer,” Obama said. “Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources they’ve had in over a decade.”
“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 forty years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” he said, to cheers from the crowd.
Striking a markedly more conversational tone than usual in his address, Obama went on to tout the progress his administration has made in tackling the nation’s economic issues, combating climate change and helping nearly 18 million Americans get health insurance.
Despite these strides, Obama said there’s still a lot of work to be done and vowed in his final year to continue to help fix “a broken immigration system,” “protect our kids” from gun violence, raise the minimum wage and close the gender pay gap.
“All these things still matter to hard working families,” he said. “They’re still the right thing to do.”
The president then called on all Americans to come together to help answer four “big questions”:
• How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?
• How do we make technology work for us, and not against us – especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?
• How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
• How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?
Obama pointed out that the U.S. “right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” as well as the strongest leadership.
“That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” he said in an apparent nod to the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric employed by GOP front-runner Donald Trump and other Republican candidates.
“This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what 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 I stand tonight that ‘to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.’ When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
First Lady Michelle Obama watched her husband’s final State of the Union address from the crowd, along with 23 special guests, including Jim Obergefell, one of the plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court case that declared same-sex marriage legal in June 2015. A Syrian refugee, Refaai Hamo, and an undocumented Mexican immigrant and army veteran, Oscar Vasquez, were also among those sitting in the First Lady’s box in the House of Representatives gallery, where one seat was left empty to symbolize the victims of gun violence.
Also in the audience was Kim Davis, the Kentucky country clerk who was arrested for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. A spokesperson for the Liberty Counsel declined to say which member of Congress invited Davis, according to NPR.
House Speaker Paul Ryan sat directly behind Obama, next to Biden. Ryan joked ahead of the address that he had been practicing his “poker face,” and criticized Obama’s legacy by saying, “He never took on this threat of debt. He never proposed to balance the budget. He demagogued us.”
Obama closed his speech by saying the voices of all American citizens – from dreamers, to soldiers, to new citizens, to protestors, to police officers – give him “such incredible confidence in our future.”
“That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That’s why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong.”