WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is viewing his final State of the Union as the start of a sprint — a last chance to advance his agenda and shape his legacy.
With a year in his term left, Obama and his aides are previewing a speech focused more on the long view and less on rehashing the partisan divides that have forestalled cooperation with Congress over the past seven years. He’ll go positive, trying to emphasize the feeling the country is already moving in the right direction and doesn’t need a dramatic course correction. And he’ll emphasize things he doesn’t need Congress’s permission for, like executive actions on guns or moving prisoners away from Guantanamo Bay.
But the President also has to try and convince Americans he’s moving in the right direction when it comes to ISIS and terrorism and acknowledge the reality that his time in Washington is running out.
Here are five things to watch for in Obama’s final address Tuesday night:
Another go at ISIS
Obama enters this year’s speech in the unusual position of having just commanded prime-time television audiences when he delivered an address to the nation on ISIS from the Oval Office in early December.
Fueled by Sunday night football audiences, that speech garnered 46 million viewers — more than watched any of Obama’s last five State of the Union speeches.
The goal of the December address: explain his strategy against the terror group, and reassure Americans of their safety after attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.
Polls have shown since then his speech did little to calm fears of a terror attack on U.S. soil, and given the public little confidence in his counter-terror strategy. A CNN/ORC survey conducted after the speech showed 60% of Americans disapproved of Obama’s handling of terrorism, and 64% said they disapproved of the way he’s going after ISIS.
The continued unease over terror means Obama will likely use Tuesday’s speech to make another go at explaining how he plans to “degrade and destroy” ISIS — even as he acknowledges the fight will go on after he leaves office.
It’s not all bad
The ISIS crisis aside, Obama views the past seven years as largely positive — and want to say so during Tuesday night’s address.
On the economy in particular, Obama’s aides have grown frustrated that so many Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction when economic indicators would suggest otherwise. The unemployment rate is now lower than it was when Obama took office; the stock market is soaring to new highs; and more Americans have health insurance than ever before.
It’s not just the economy the White House hopes to portray as moving in the right direction. Diplomatic wins with Cuba and Iran, while still controversial, reflect advancement of a diplomacy-focused agenda in the White House view.
By issuing an optimistic note, the White House hopes to slash away at the relentlessly pessimistic outlook offered on the campaign trail — at least on the Republican side. The challenge will be characterizing the progress in a way that makes sense to the 75% of Americans who say, in the latest CNN/ORC poll, they’re dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed.
“There are a lot of Americans who are feeling insecure about the economy,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest conceded Monday. “Obviously, given the terrorist attack that we saw in San Bernardino at the end of last year, people are understandably concerned about national security and it sort of reawakened people’s concerns about that. So there’s certainly reason for people to be concerned.
“The President’s reaction to that, though, is that he has never been more confident about our ability to confront successfully those challenges,” he said.
Not avoiding election year politics
He’s said over and over that he’s not on the ballot this year, but Obama hasn’t been shy about ramping up his political rhetoric this election season. That isn’t likely to abate as he addresses what’s likely to be his largest audience during his remaining time in office.
But unlike his fiery political speeches, during which he’s lambasted Republicans for their stances on refugees, debate moderators, and the economy, he can’t exactly use the State of the Union podium to advance an overtly political message — the crowd, after all, is majority GOP.
Instead, look for Obama to hone in on the issues he wants debated this election season, framing them through his own lens as the noise from the campaign trail becomes ever-louder.
Those issues include gun control, which he’s said will be the driving force behind his political decisions in the coming year. It’s also likely to mean he’ll raise issues of income inequality and wages, areas Democrats believe they carry a strong advantage over their Republican rivals.
Obama and his aides are desperate to avoid “lame duck” status, and even agreed to an earlier State of the Union this year to avoid too much overlap with the primary season. But even as Obama seeks a stage without competition from those seeking to replace him, the White House readily acknowledges his words will be viewed through a political prism.
“Will there be candidates in either party — some Republican candidates trying to use this to advance their campaigns? Will there be Democratic candidates for President trying to use the President’s message to advance their campaigns? I’m sure that will happen,” Earnest said Monday. “And I’m not even sure that’s inappropriate.”
Any last request list for Congress?
The White House insists this year’s State of the Union speech won’t be a laundry list of proposals for Congress — which makes what Obama does ask of lawmakers all the more important.
Some of the expected proposals — like renewing his calls to pass war authorization against ISIS, closing the Guantanamo Bay naval prison, and passing new gun laws — are just as unlikely to go nowhere as they were when he made those calls last year.
But on other topics the White House does see opportunities for congressional cooperation. That includes final passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated won’t happen until after next year’s presidential election.
Obama wants it passed earlier — and is likely to say so Tuesday night. After all, the trade pact would form a major part of his presidential legacy, and lies solely in the hands of lawmakers.
Congress similarly has the power to rewrite the tax code, something both Republicans and the White House support. While it’s smaller-ball than Obama’s more sweeping legacy plans, enacting tax reform would help the President rebut accusations he’s been unwilling to work with Congress during his tenure.
Nostalgia seeping in
As he enters his final year in office, the waning days of his presidency seem to be driving memories of his team’s earliest moments.
The best indication that nostalgia will seep into his final State of the Union address: the invited guests sitting in the gallery, including Edith Childs, the South Carolina organizer who coined the term “Fired up, ready to go.” The chant became a rallying cry during both of Obama’s campaigns.
Also in the First Lady’s box: Earl Smith, a veteran who Obama met during his first bid for President in 2008.
More than any of Obama’s past addresses to Congress, his speech comes imbued with the reality that his term is winding down — a feeling he acknowledged, and sought to harness, in a preview video released by the White House Monday.
“I want us to be able when we walk out this door to say we couldn’t think of anything else that we didn’t try to do,” he said. “That we didn’t shy away from a challenge because it was hard. That we weren’t timid or got tired or somehow thinking about the next thing because there is no next thing.”
“This is it,” he said. “Never in our lives again will we have the chance to do as much good as we do now. I want to make sure we maximize it.”