RECAP: President Obama’s Final State of the Union Address

President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address Tuesday, calling for "a better politics" that rejects discrimination and fear towards outsiders. At many times a direct rebuke to the rhetoric of GOP candidates - particularly Donald Trump - he urged lawmakers to find common ground and eschew partisanship for its own sake. And he outlined four "big questions" that must be addressed by Americans, dealing with the economy, technology, foreign policy and the coarseness of our politics.

He was on defense on foreign policy, calling Republicans' strident threats of a growing ISIS overblown. Republican GOP candidates swiftly rebuked him for underestimating the threat of terrorism.

After the State of the Union, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina weighed in, delivering the Republican response. You can read a full recap of her comments here.

If you missed the speech, catch up with all you missed with our play-by-play coverage below.

State of the Union Highlights

Final Thoughts to The President's Final SOTU

Matt Rivera

The highlight reel

In his last State of the Union address, President Obama responded to the policies and proposals that are animating the 2016 Republican Primary. Here are some of the biggest moments.

Obama Takes Aim at GOP in Final State of the Union 2:31
Leigh Ann Caldwell

Donald Trump Responds

Donald Trump remained quiet throughout the speech until the very end, weighing in on Twitter. He doesn't respond to its content but the president's style.

Carrie Dann

"The State of our Union is strong"

Instead of at the start of the speech, Obama closed with the definitive and iconic statement of how the country is doing. Naming Americans around the country -- students, soldiers, the elderly, law enforcement, DREAMers, LGBT youth and new citizens -- he said they show the spirit of the nation.

Obama: The state of our union is strong 0:35

"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. I believe in change because of you. I believe in you. That's why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong."

Carrie Dann

Obama's Plea: Vote

Winding up his State of the Union, the president pleas for Americans -- regardless of party -- to participate in the democratic process.

My fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations 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. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.

He also said that Congressional districts must be decided differently.

Carrie Dann

"One of the Few Regrets of my Presidency"

Obama weighed in on one of the most frequently cited allegations on the Republican side of the campaign: that he has further divided the country.

And he acknowledged that it is "one of the few regrets" of his tenure in the White House that America is more divided -- not less -- than it was when he took office.

"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. There's 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."

In a NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll out Tuesday morning, Obama's approval rating stood at 45 percent, while 54 percent disapproved of him. You can learn more about that poll here.


The president just ad-libbed from his prepared text, asking Congress to consider working together to "finally find real solutions." President Obama promised to unite both parties under his leadership throughout his 2008 campaign, but the strong gridlock in Washington prevented him from bring both parties together to pass a bipartisan agenda as PolitiFact points out.

Carrie Dann

A strong condemnation of discrimination (and Trump)

The president unleashed a strong condemnation of discrimination against groups based on race or religion -- yet another veiled comment about the current political rhetoric out of the GOP.

"That's why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. 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."

And next, perhaps the most direct attacks on Trump, although he did not mention the GOP front-runner by name.

"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, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention."

Carrie Dann

TPP, Cuba and Gitmo

Obama appealed to Congress to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which even divides his own party. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton say they oppose the agreement, which Obama said would "open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia."

He repeated his proposal to lift the Cuban embargo: "You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo."

And he reiterated a failed promise from his States of the Union past: to close the prison at Guantanamo. "It's expensive, it's unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies."


The president pledged to close Guantanamo Bay back in his first State of the Union and again in his 2014 address. The military prison still remains open, leading PolitiFact to rate his promise as "stalled."

Leigh Ann Caldwell

GOP Candidates Strongly Rebuke Obama on ISIS

Carrie Dann

"Ask Osama bin Laden"

Despite his efforts to deflate ISIS as mere " killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out" -- not an existential threat -- Obama did not hesitate to reference the terrorists who have met their end under his watch.

"If you doubt America's commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. 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. It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limits."

And he took a clear shot at Republicans who have called for more bombings to target ISIS, saying "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."

That's a reference to Ted Cruz, who has said he wants to "carpet bomb" the Islamic State.

Obama: The World Still Looks To The U.S. To Lead 1:33


PolitiFact explains just what does an "existential threat" mean?

Carrie Dann

Foreign policy comes up at last

On the GOP side of the 2016 debate, foreign policy dominates the conversation, but it took about a half an hour for Obama to bring up national security in this more domestic-focused address.

And his message is this: Stop the hyperbole, because it only plays into the hands of terrorists.

"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. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close."

Obama: United States Is the Most Powerful Nation on Earth 1:03

Obama acknowledged that it is a "dangerous time" around the world but clarified "we're threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states."

"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; they undermine our allies.

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 and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That's the story ISIL wants to tell; that's the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. "

Obama: United States Is the Most Powerful Nation on Earth 1:03
Carrie Dann

Joe Biden Gets a New Assignment in 'Mission Control'

President Obama just announced a new cancer initiative, putting his vice president in charge of the effort.

Obama announces new anti-cancer initiative 0:08

Biden's son, Beau, died of brain cancer last year. He's cited his family's mourning as a key reason he decided not to pursue a 2016 presidential run.

After his son's death, Biden began advocating for a "moonshot" to cure the disease forever.

"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," Obama said of the new effort. "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."

NBC's Kelly O' Donnell's Insight From Inside the House Chamber

That was in response to a new task Obama gave to Biden per NBC's Monica Alba

Some bipartisan applause -- and then some divisions

Obama got a rare lengthy bipartisan response for saying that some regulations in the private sector must get an overhaul.

"I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy. I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there's red tape that needs to be cut," he said, prompting hoots of approval from both sides of the aisle.

But his later comments elicited a more divided response.

"But after years of record corporate profits, working families won't get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else; or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered. Food Stamp recipients didn't cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. 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. It's sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts."

And many more Democrats than Republicans chuckled at his comparisons between the need to address climate change and the Space Race.

"Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn't deny Sputnik was up there. We didn't argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon."

Carrie Dann

Another shoutout to Speaker Ryan

The president again referenced an area of potential compromise, calling out Speaker Ryan for the second time in his remarks.

"I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty. America is about giving everybody willing to work a hand up, and I'd welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers without kids," he said.

Ryan moderated a GOP forum on poverty in South Carolina this past weekend. You can read a dispatch about that event from NBC's Leigh Ann Caldwell here.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

GOP Candidates Respond in Real Time

So far, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Rand Paul are the Republican presidential candidates who are responding to the president's speech in real time.

Most are rebutting the president's statements.

Kasich is tweeting that he has done it better in Ohio

Carrie Dann

A dig at Congress

Some laughter in the chamber for this line from President Obama, who uses it to illustrate the changing and more fluid economy

"Of course, 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. After all, it's not 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."

Carrie Dann

Making an economic argument

Since the nation began to climb out of the recession, the president has been faced with two objectives that often seem at odds: the improving economic fundamentals when it comes to the unemployment rate and Wall Street versus the anxiety caused by flat wages.

Obama calls US economy decline 'fiction' 1:18

Here's how he spoke about those issues tonight:

"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...Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction. 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 and haven't let up... 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 on their careers, and 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."

Carrie Dann

The Four Big Questions

This State of the Union outlines four "big questions" that Obama said the country must solve together "regardless of who the next President is, or who controls the next Congress."

Here's the list:

First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?

Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?

Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?

And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what's best in us, and not what's worst?

Carrie Dann

The Early Shot at Republican Rhetoric and 'Fear'

Early in the speech are the lines the White House released earlier today, including a clear shot at the rhetoric of Republicans like Donald Trump -- even if the GOP frontrunner is not referenced by name.

"America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and 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, promising 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... Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?"

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Jeb Bush Weighs In

Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush weighs in with a clip from him campaigning in Iowa.