Obama faces choice in final State of the Union address

Getty Images

President Obama is faced with the choice of focusing on the past or the future in his his final State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

Obama wants to underline the accomplishments of his presidency while tying a bow on his legacy, but is also tasked with setting the table for a Democrat to succeed him in the Oval Office. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama and his aides have cast his approach to the final State of the Union as “nontraditional.”

They suggest that he will likely tick off the few remaining items on his legislative agenda, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and criminal justice reform, but be more focused on defining the narrative of his presidency. 

That means defending some of his signature accomplishments — including the Affordable Care Act, the stimulus and his Wall Street reform law — that have come under attack by Republicans. 

If he can successfully do both, Obama can help the Democrat nominated to succeed him all while using one of his final primetime television addresses to send a message about his presidency.

“If he uses the State of the Union to bring that together and offer a powerful illustration of his record, it’s not a case for Obama, it’s a case for why Democrats should stay in power,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of public affairs at Princeton University. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest previewed that approach on Thursday, who began his daily press briefing with a lengthy pitch on why Obama’s auto bailout helped the industry recover.  On Friday, he touted December's strong jobs report as a product of Obama's economic policies. 

The president plans to amplify that message, traveling to Nebraska and Louisiana (both red states) after his speech to tout ObamaCare and the economic recovery.

Donna Hoffman, head of the University of Northern Iowa’s political science department who studies State of the Union addresses, says she expects Obama to focus heavily on his healthcare law, which Republicans have pledged to repeal if they retake the White House.

Days before the address, Obama vetoed legislation approved by the Republican Congress to repeal the law. The veto cams as the administration touted numbers showing that 11.3 million people had entered the healthcare law’s exchanges.

“By trumpeting his accomplishments, many of which are basically red flags to the Republican base, he is basically is saying ‘I want my legacy to be carried on and who best to carry it on than somebody who will continue to carry forward the Affordable Care Act,’” Hoffman said. 

Obama can draw on final-year speeches by Ronald Reagan and Bill ClintonBill ClintonPoll: Voters divided on role of government in gun control Trump details '50 facts' attacking Clinton Clinton slams Trump on immigration in Arizona op-ed MORE as templates for his own. 

In 1988, Reagan spoke at length about his accomplishments: arms reduction, economic expansion and restoring America’s reputation as a strong world power. He made no specific mention of Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was running to succeed him. 

“If we will work together this year, I believe we can give a future president and a future Congress the chance to make that prosperity, that peace, that freedom not just the state of our Union but the state of our world,” Reagan said

By contrast, Clinton rattled off a laundry list of proposals for Congress on everything from debt reduction, education and healthcare reform. He praised Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper for policy contributions, even as Gore sought to distance himself from the scandal-plagued Clinton on the campaign trail. 

While the 43rd president's wife, Hillary Clinton, is perceived to be the White House’s favored candidate in 2016, expect Obama to take a Reagan-esque approach. 

“I don’t think he can be too direct,” Zelizer said of Obama. “I don’t think he wants the press coverage to be ‘Obama gives a very partisan speech.’”

“I think there will be ample opportunity for the president over the course of this year to deliver a political speech,” Earnest said. “But that’s not what Tuesday is about."

Obama could wade into 2016 waters on guns.

After a mass shooting last fall, the president said he wouldn't be afraid to politicize the issue. He delivered this week, revealing a litmus test for Democrats. Obama wrote in a New York Times op-ed he would “not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate” who does not back “common-sense gun reform.” 

That is music to Clinton's ears; she has run to the left of her chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), on guns.