Obama Takes on Trump and the Politics of Fear in Final State of the Union
Policy + Politics

Obama Takes on Trump and the Politics of Fear in Final State of the Union

Jonathan Ernst

President Obama promised a non-traditional State of the Union speech Tuesday night – one offering an optimistic message about how the two warring political parties could set aside their differences and “build together” a better future.

“We’ve done some big things together over these past seven years, and we’re not finished,” the president assured supporters and the media in an emailed message shortly before he delivered his eighth and final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

Related: Trump Plays the Birther Card on Cruz -- and It’s Working

While much of his speech indeed addressed the need for a cooperative effort on the economy, the environment, energy production, new technology and cancer research, Obama wasted little time in delivering a thinly-veiled rebuke to GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump for engaging in the politics of fear and unbridled attacks on minorities and  immigrants.

Without ever mentioning the bombastic billionaire businessman by name, Obama cautioned politicians against exploiting “fear of the future” and urged voters to reject those politicians who target minority groups and Muslims in the name of restoring American greatness.

“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,” the president said.  “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.”

With less than a month before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary formally kick off the 2016 campaign, presidential politics permeated the evening on Capitol Hill, with Obama jokingly offering to provide campaigning tips to Republican and Democratic candidates alike.

Related: Cruz Won’t Send ‘Jack Boots’ to Deport 11.3 Million Illegal Immigrants

But he grew deadly serious in criticizing Trump and other GOP candidates engaging he what he deemed the politics of fear and divisiveness.

Trump, the leading GOP presidential candidate, has shocked many in both parties with his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, his promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, his threat to deport all 11.3 million illegal immigrants and, more recently, his proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the country in the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.

“We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” the president said. “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.”

Related: How One Tragic Event Could Change Nikki Haley’s Political Future

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India who was tapped to deliver the Republican response to Obama’s speech, used part of her speech to decry the “angriest voices” in American politics.

Haley, who gained national prominence last summer for leading her state in mourning after a white supremacist shot and killed nine parishioners in an historic black church in Charleston, cited a number of threats to the U.S., including home-grown terrorism.

“We are facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since Sept. 11, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it,” she said in a speech delivered in South Carolina.

But she also spoke out against rampant anti-immigrant bias and warned that the country may be moving down a dangerous path. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said in her prepared remarks. “We must resist that temptation.”

“No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country,” she added. “At the same time, that does not mean we just flat out open our borders.”

Haley told reporters in Columbia, S.C., last month that Trump’s call for barring Muslims other than U.S. citizens was “absolutely un-American” and unconstitutional,” according to The Hill. She added that Trump’s plan “defies everything that this country was based on.”