He said Iran’s nuclear program has been halted for the first time in decades and that if Congress passes new sanctions against Tehran in the midst of negotiations, it will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails.
"It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress," Obama said while acknowledging there are no guarantees that talks with Iran on its nuclear program will succeed.
Instead of acting alone when dealing with crises that unfold around the world, Obama said the U.S. combined its military power with strong diplomacy to build coalitions.
In Iraq and Syria, American leadership has stopped ISIL’s advance, according to Obama.
"We stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists -- from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris," he said.
He said his administration has spoken against anti-Semitism and continues to reject "offensive stereotypes of Muslims."
"We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally," he said as he encouraged Congress to pass a resolution to authorize the use of force against the terror group.
He also touched on Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. "We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small," Obama said.
"Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. [Vladimir] Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength," he said. "Today it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters."
With the recent softening of relations with Cuba, Obama said the U.S. has ended a policy that was "long past its expiration date."
"When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere," he said.
Noting that the rapprochement with Cuba would remove "a phony excuse" for restrictions on the island, he urged Congress to "begin the work of ending the embargo," that has been in place for more than 50 years.
U.S. and Cuban officials will hold bilateral talks at the end of the month to end the decades-long hostility.
In one of the more controversial issues Obama addressed, he said he was determined to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, also known as Gitmo.
"Since I’ve been president, we’ve worked responsibly to cut the population of Gitmo in half. Now it’s time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down," he said.
Shortly after assuming office in 2009, Obama vowed to close the prison whose population was 242 at the time. Critics have repeatedly cited security concerns of having detainees on the U.S. mainland as their reasons for not wanting the prison shut. Currently, 127 detainees remain at the site.
The president also showed a commitment to climate change.
"I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts," he said. "I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action."
He said he made an historic announcement In Beijing earlier this year that the U.S. will double the pace at which it cuts carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limit its own emissions, he said.
“Tonight, we turn the page,” Obama said to the joint session of Congress. “The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.”
Guaranteed paid sick leave, immigration reform, affordable child care, raising the minimum wage, and a reformed tax code were all policy changes that the president sought to convince the public were necessary next steps in the U.S.’s economic recovery.
He directed his case for economic populism directly to the American middle class, which took staggering blows during 2007-2008’s financial crisis.
“We’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years,” he said. “So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way.”
Obama called on lawmakers to pursue a “better politics” that goes beyond the partisanship that has come to define Washington’s politics, saying that he will work with Republicans “to make this country stronger.”
“If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments – but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country,” he said.
Even so, he promised to veto legislation that seeks to roll back his hallmark health care reform legislation, banking regulations that were put in place after the global economic crisis, or his executive actions on immigration reform.
It was the first time that Obama addressed both houses of Congress following a crushing Democratic defeat in the November 2014 midterm elections that saw both chambers fall to Republicans.
With congressional control, Republicans are highly unlikely to pass legislation that will fulfill the policy agenda that Obama laid out.
“Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare,” said Sen. Joni Ernst during the televised Republican response.
“Obamacare” is the term Republicans use to refer to the president’s health care law.
“Congress is back to work on your behalf, ready to make Washington focus on your concerns again,” she said, stressing that Congress would not support increased taxes for the wealthy - a policy proposal that Obama made the case for in his address.
“Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth,” he said.
But in making his case to the public, Obama is seeking to the shape the electoral narrative ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, said John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
“The president has no illusions that these positions are not starters in Congress,” he said. “What he hopes is that he can convince enough Americans that his view, and the Democratic party’s view, on issues like inequality and opportunity, are the best way forward.”
With campaigning for the 2016 elections set to start later this year, Obama will likely continue to ramp up messaging even as he faces little likelihood of gaining congressional approval for his policy objectives.
“In reality, he’s given up on working with Congress on a lot of fronts, and he knows that the best way to overcome that is to try to win future elections,” Hudak said.