Amid a victory lap highlighting what he regards as his greatest achievements, Obama took plenty of time out to make reference to Trump — though never by name — in particular criticizing Trump policies that relate to ethnicity and immigration.
“That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” he said during the speech, which clocked in at about an hour. “Let me just say this: This is not a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong.”
Obama was more explicit later in the address when he offered a defense of Islam. It sounded like a rebuke of Trump’s controversial proposal for a temporary halt to Muslims entering the United States while authorities review immigration and entry procedures.
“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” Obama said. “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.”
While adhering to his advisers’ pre-speech promise that the address would be light on specific legislative proposals, the few that he did mention struck at the heart of Trump’s platform. He called for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, “fixing a broken immigration system” and “protecting our kids from gun violence.”
Challenging Trump’s contention that unrestrained immigration has depressed wages, he said, “Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns.”
Trump also starred in the Republican response, delivered by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who used her moment in the sun to wave the flag of the GOP establishment. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said in an obvious reference to the GOP front-runner. “We must resist that temptation … While some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference, that is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume.”
Trump was not Obama’s only target. He took a nasty swipe at Sen. Ted Cruz, who called for “carpet bombing” ISIS-held strongholds, suggesting Cruz would slaughter civilians. Obama said “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.”
For the past few years, anger among the grass roots in the conservative movement has swelled against Republican leaders they see as too equivocating. On Tuesday, Obama stirred the pot. He claimed Republican lawmakers have confided in him that they resent having to raise money and “feel trapped by the demands of getting elected.” In an ad lib that was not in the written speech, he added, “. . . by the noise coming out of your base.”
Obama said, “Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.”
Beyond his critique of Trump and extremism, the president’s final address was a mixture of dubious claims for credit, unrealistic promises, platitudes and overtures that conservatives will surely demand specifics before embracing.
For instance, Obama crowed that the energy sector “employs more Americans than coal,” with no sense of irony. Coal employment has cratered in large measure because of his environmental policies.
At the same time, Obama implausibly took credit for falling fuel prices, which are the result fracking, drilling that has occurred on private and not publican land, and actions by Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting countries keeping supply high in an effort to run American oil producers out of business.
“Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad,” he said.
On defense and foreign policy, Obama ignored critics of cuts in military spending, arguing that the America is by far the strongest country in the world. He depicted Russian aggression in Ukraine and moves in Syria as relics of a past that is long gone. He declared his much-derided nuclear arms deal with Iran as a success and said the global climate change pact signed in Paris last year “helps kids.”
He minimized the threat from ISIS, saying American did not face existential peril from fighters in “pickup trucks.”
And he promised to put Vice President Joe Biden “in charge of Mission Control” in medical research.
“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.