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Obama Hails U.S. Leadership In Final Annual Address

Obama Says U.S. International Power Undiminished
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WATCH: U.S. President Barack Obama Says U.S. International Power Is Undiminished

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has hailed U.S. economic and military strength and leadership, but warned against trying to make the United States "the world’s policeman" in a dangerous, changing world order.

Speaking on January 12 during his final State of the Union address, Obama tried to debunk some of the heated rhetoric that has come to characterize the election campaign to succeed him. And, like his predecessor George W. Bush, he used blunt, colloquial language to characterize the U.S. fight against terrorists.

"If you doubt America's commitment -- or mine -- to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden," he said. "When you come after Americans, we go after you. It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit."

The speech was Obama's last annual address to Congress, providing both a formal marker for his final year in the White House as well as an opportunity to summarize his achievements, and deflect criticism, of his presidency.

While he mentioned some of the acute international challenges that have marked his time in office -- climate change, the Ebola epidemic in Africa, a new trade pact in East Asia -- he made scant mention of others, such as Russia's increasing belligerence, Ukraine's struggle, or Iraq's and Afghanistan’s deepening weakness.

"I know this is a dangerous time. But that's not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower. In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states," he told an audience that included elected lawmakers, cabinet secretaries, and Supreme Court judges.

"There's a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power," he said. "It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight."

WATCH: Obama Says Failing States Are America's Biggest Threat

Obama Says Failing States Are America's Biggest Threat
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The president spoke at the U.S. Capitol just hours after the Defense Department confirmed that two U.S. Navy boats operating in the Persian Gulf had been detained by Iranian forces. Ahead of the speech, White House officials tried to downplay the incident, suggesting that the 10 detained sailors would be released soon.

Obama made no mention of the incident, instead limiting his remarks about Iran to mention the landmark agreement in July to lift debilitating economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran scaling back some of its nuclear activities.

"That’s why we built a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran," he said. "As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war."

He called radical Islamic State (IS) fighters who have seized territory in Syria and Iraq "killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed."

"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," he said. "But they do not threaten our national existence."

WATCH: Obama Says IS Dangerous But Not 'Existential Threat'

Obama: Islamic State Is Dangerous, But No 'Existential' Threat
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Defending His Legacy

He also called on Congress to pass a resolution authorizing him to commit military force in the fight against IS.

"If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL,” he said, using another acronym for the extremist group. "Take a vote."

Though Obama doesn't need that explicit authority to conduct military operations, White House officials say that sort of resolution -- similar to what Congress passed after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks -- would strengthen military strategy and show U.S. resolve.

"President Obama really seemed to be defending his legacy and trying to contradict those who say that the state of the world is so negative, [the] state of the economy is negative," said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"I mean, he really tried to defend that his policy has helped to bring about a better economy, and even that the world, the situation of security and so forth in the world is not as bad as they make it out to be."

Much of Obama’s 58-minute speech was devoted to domestic policies.

He hailed the strength of the U.S. economy, saying 14 million jobs had been created in the past two years, and he singled out industries like auto manufacturing that have recovered noticeably since the Great Recession of 2008-09.

"Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction," he said.

Call For Civility

He also addressed the sharpening rhetoric that has punctuated the election campaign to succeed him in the White House. With less than a month before voters formally begin the process of choosing candidates, Obama called for more civility in political dialogue.

Democracy, he said "doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic."

"It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency -- that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better," Obama said.

Though candidates have been campaigning for months already, next month will mark the first time that voters -- beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire -- will be able to formally name their preferences for the Democratic and Republican nominees.

The national vote will take place on November 8, with the winner to assume office in January 2017.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported first-hand on the wars in Chechnya and Georgia and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Ukraine's Donbas.