Obama Touts Cancer Moon Shot in Last State of the Union Speech

January 12, 2016

In his last State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama tonight announced a national initiative to find a cure for cancer, an ambitious "moon shot" that Vice President Joe Biden will direct in the remaining months of the administration.

Biden has called for such a scientific blitz after the death of his son Beau Biden from brain cancer in May.

The moon shot has already materialized in the private sector. On November 11, leaders from the pharmaceutical, biotech, and academic medicine communities announced the formation of the National Immunotherapy Coalition. This group aims to develop a vaccine-based immunotherapy to combat cancer by 2020 through what it calls the Cancer MoonShot 2020 program.

Obama did not offer details on what the government's role would be in accelerating the pace of cancer research, but noted that the giant spending and tax deal passed by Congress in December boosts spending at the National Institutes of Health. The president also gave a shout-out to the Precision Medicine Initiative he announced in his 2015 State of the Union speech. That research effort seeks to develop targeted therapies for cancer and other diseases on the basis of an individual's genetic and molecular profile.

President's Greatest Hits Included the ACA

Striking an optimistic tone about the country's direction, Obama touted the achievements of his last 7 years in office, mostly notably an economic recovery after the financial crisis of 2008. "We're in the middle of the longest streak of private sector job creation in history," he said.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) made his greatest hits as well.

"Nearly 18 million have gained coverage so far," said Obama. "Healthcare inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law."

The president acknowledged deep-seated opposition to healthcare reform, a fact that has haunted his signature legislation since it was passed in 2010. Just last week, he vetoed a bill crafted by a Republican-controlled Congress that would have gutted the ACA by removing key provisions such as the individual mandate to obtain insurance coverage and Medicaid expansion, undertaken by 30 states and the District of Columbia.

The negativity extends beyond Congress. In December, 46% of Americans had a somewhat or very unfavorable view of the law compared with 40% who view it favorably, according to a monthly Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll. The poll, dating back to April 2010, has generally reflected this split, although there have been some months when support narrowly outweighed opposition. At the same time, the Kaiser Family Foundation found in December that most Americans do not want to repeal the law, despite its perceived flaws.

Tonight's speech made passing reference to other healthcare issues. Obama said he would continue to push to protect children from gun violence. He called on Congress to strengthen Medicare, not weaken it. And in a line that drew bipartisan applause, he expressed hope that lawmakers would come together on issues such as "battling prescription drug abuse."

"We just might surprise the cynics again," Obama said.

In the official Republican response to Obama's speech, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said the president's record "has often fallen short of his soaring words."

One example, she said, was healthcare reform, which "has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available." Haley said her party would replace the ACA "with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor."


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