President Barack Obama took aim on Tuesday at Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and accused critics of playing into the hands of Islamic State in a speech meant to cement his legacy and set a positive tone for his final year in office.
Obama, delivering his last annual State of the Union speech to Congress as president, called for leaders to “fix” U.S. politics and criticized candidates such as Trump for using anti-Muslim rhetoric that betrayed American values.
“When politicians insult Muslims … that doesnâ€™t make us safer,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd in the House of Representatives chamber. “Itâ€™s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals.”
Trump, whom Obama did not mention by name in his speech, is leading the Republican field ahead of the Nov. 8 election to pick the next president.
The billionaire businessman, citing national security concerns, has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, ideas the White House strongly opposes.
Obama sought to contrast his more optimistic view of America’s future with those of the Republican candidates trying to replace him.
He said it was “fiction” to describe the country as being in economic decline. While acknowledging that al Qaeda and Islamic State posed a direct threat to Americans, he said comparing the effort to defeat the militants who control swaths of Iraq and Syria to World War Three gave the group just what it wanted.
“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,” Obama said.
Republicans say the president’s strategy to defeat Islamic State is flawed and insufficient.
“His policies arenâ€™t working. He didn’t have an answer for how to defeat ISIS,” Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement after the speech, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Obama’s address to lawmakers, Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices was one of his last remaining chances to capture the attention of millions of Americans before the November election. The next president will take office in January 2017.