Analysis: Obama in campaign form in final State of the Union

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama opened his State of the Union speech saying he'd keep it short, in what must have seemed music to the ears of some in the chamber eager to return to their campaigns to succeed him.

Obama was eager to challenge biting criticism from Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and other Republicans.

Anyone who says the economy is declining is "peddling fiction," he argued. The president characterized skepticism about science as absurd. And claims that U.S. stature in the world is shrinking is "political hot air."

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

Obama's final annual address to both houses of Congress was his most high-profile entry yet into the presidential race to succeed him. He showed he was more than ready to defend his record and happy to show Democrats how he thinks it should be done.

His legacy will be shaped by whether Americans in November choose a Democrat to succeed him and cement his signature heath care law, environmental policies and immigration programs.

Obama breezed through his remaining priorities — raising the minimum wage, overhauling the immigration system, tightening gun laws — even as he acknowledged they were unlikely to get done. He highlighted a few possible proposals with better chances — criminal justice reform and fighting prescription drug abuse.

"Who knows? We might surprise the cynics again," Obama said.

Obama also took some clear shots at the Republicans who've used him as a target for months.

He defended his handling of the rise of Islamic extremism and tried to temper anxieties about the Islamic State group.

"Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands," Obama said. "We don't need to build them up to show that we're serious, and we sure don't need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world's largest religions."

With an expected audience of some 30 million viewers, the speech was Obama's first of two chances to make a high-profile case for a Democratic successor. Not until his speech at the Democratic convention this summer will he likely have such undivided attention again.

The president and his aides have been marveling for months at what they described as Republicans' gloom-and-doom vision for America.

In trying to present an optimistic alternative, Obama's speechwriters were mindful of not taking a victory lap. Americans hardly share his confidence in America's upward trajectory, polls show. In touting the economic recovery, in particular, Obama risks seeming out of touch.

"The president's record has often fallen far short of his soaring words," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said in the Republican rebuttal. "As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels. We're feeling a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities."

But the president showed he was ready to rebut such comments — once Democrats pick a candidate and he's unleashed on the campaign trail.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Kathleen Hennessey covers the White House for The Associated Press

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