In his final state of the union address, U.S. President Barack Obama channelled the message of hope and change that originally propelled him to the White House, posing four "big questions" for the future that he said the country must answer if it is to prosper while offering a sharp rebuke of political rivals.

"For my final address to this chamber, I don't want to talk just about the next year. I want to focus on the next five years, 10 years and beyond," Obama said.

"First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us  —  especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what's best in us, and not what's worst?" he asked.

The president's address to lawmakers and a prime-time television audience was meant to both shape his legacy and put his imprint squarely on the race to succeed him.

He defended his record — and implicitly urged the public to elect another Democratic president to build on it — but acknowledged the persistent anxieties of Americans who feel shut out of a changing economy or at risk from an evolving terror threat.

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He went on to methodically address each of the four questions over the hour-long address, repeatedly returning to the theme that "democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise" and that it requires "basic bonds of trust between its citizens."

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

"It's easier to be cynical, to accept that change isn't possible and politics is hopeless," Obama said. "But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future."

Campaign fodder

Also at the heart of his address was an implicit call to keep Democrats in the White House for a third straight term. While Obama did not directly call out Republicans, he sharply, and at times sarcastically, struck back at rivals who have challenged his economic and national security stewardship.

In his most pointed swipe at the GOP candidates running to succeed him, Obama warned against "voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don't look like us or pray like us or vote like we do or share the same background."

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His words were unexpectedly echoed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, mentioned by some as a potential vice presidential candidate this year, who was selected to give the Republican response to Obama's address.

"During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices," Haley, whose parents are immigrants from India, said. "We must resist that temptation."

Haley said the U.S. should continue admitting "properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion" — an apparent reference to calls by Donald Trump to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the country.

Haley's assertion was sharply criticized on social media by hard-line Republicans pundits Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter.

However, Haley did go on to say: "That does not mean we just flat out open our borders," and said the U.S. should refuse entry to refugees "whose intentions cannot be determined."

Promise to 'take out' ISIS

Seeking to shape his own legacy, Obama ticked through a retrospective of his domestic and foreign policy actions in office, including helping lead the economy back from the brink of depression, taking aggressive action on climate change and ending a Cold War freeze with Cuba.

He touted implementation of the landmark nuclear deal with Iran, but made no mention of the 10 American sailors picked up by Iran Tuesday.

Tackling one of the most vexing foreign policy challenges of his presidency, Obama vowed a robust campaign to "take out" the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but chastised Republicans for "over the top claims" about the group's power.

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"Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger and must be stopped," he said. "But they do not threaten our national security."

Looking forward, he assured those listening that his last year in office would not be spent as a lame duck, laying out a lengthy list of priorities for the next year that includes:

  • Campaign finance reform.
  • Immigration reform.
  • Reductions in gun violence.
  • Equal pay for equal work.
  • Paid leave.
  • Raising the minimum wage.
  • Launching an unprecedented program to find a cure for cancer.
  • Keep working to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Rancour and suspicion

He was, however, frank about one of his biggest regrets: failing to ease the persistently deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

"The rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better," he conceded. "There's no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office."

Barack Obama state of the union

U.S. President Barack Obama covered a lot of ground during his final state of the union address to congress Tuesday night, urging Americans to stay united in the face of adversity. (Evan Vucci/Reuters)

Obama also tried to convince a public increasingly skeptical of his foreign policy stewardship that he has a handle on the volatile Middle East and is taking steps to prevent terrorism in the U.S.

With files from The Associated Press