What to watch for in Obama’s last State of the Union address

Greg Nash

President Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, a speech his aides are billing as unlike any he has given before. 

Instead of rolling out a laundry list of policy proposals he knows a GOP Congress is unlikely to fulfill, the president will make a broad case about how the nation has progressed under his leadership while setting the table for Democrats in the 2016 elections. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Here’s what to watch for in Obama’s final State of the Union.

 

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: Muslim soldier was a hero but his father 'has no right' to criticize me Mother of soldier killed in Iraq: I was too 'in pain' to speak at convention Top Koch network adviser rejects Trump's talk of law and order MORE

The president won’t mention Trump by name, but all signs point to Obama delivering a rebuttal of the GOP presidential front-runner’s vision of America. 

The billionaire real estate mogul rocketed to the top of the field by saying that the country is a mess, and that he will “make America great again.”

The White House has delighted in Trump’s upending of the GOP race — many Democrats believe Trump could be defeated in the fall.

At the same time, if Republicans successfully tap into public discontent, it could endanger Democrats’ ability to hold on to the White House.

Aides say Obama will present an upbeat view about the nation’s future to counter the doom-and-gloom message coming from Trump and others in the GOP.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonoughDenis McDonoughBenghazi Report and Hillary: What it means for Philadelphia White House bans Cabinet members from speaking at convention Overnight Defense: Benghazi report fallout | Nearly 50 dead after Istanbul attack MORE has accused Republicans of running down the country with their comments.

“We feel very optimistic about the future, that’s a big difference between us and what’s going on in this public debate right now and that’s what you’ll hear about on Tuesday,” he said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Guests of the president include a former undocumented immigrant from Mexico and a Syrian refugee, a symbolic rebuke of Trump’s heated rhetoric on terrorism and border security.

 

The Middle East

Tumultuous events in the Middle East have complicated the president’s case that America is stronger than ever. 

Polls show Obama receiving low marks for his handling of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an area where Republicans have repeatedly said the president has failed.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMuslim DNC speaker challenges GOP leaders to call Trump out Peter Thiel does not make the GOP pro-gay Reid: Trump is a 'hateful con man' MORE (R-Ky.) predicted on ABC’s “This Week” that Obama would “try to paint a rosy picture where one does not exist.”

“What we’d love to hear from the president is a real plan to defeat ISIL,” he said, using an alternate acronym for the terrorist group.

The criticism has irked Obama, who made a prime-time address last month on national security. On Tuesday, he may need to reassure the public and his allies in Congress, who have grumbled over Iran’s saber-rattling, the Syrian civil war and ISIS. 

 

The economy

Obama views the economy as a positive part of his legacy and wants to take time to talk about it on Tuesday night.

White House aides have crowed about the 292,000 new jobs created in December as a sign of the economy’s strength. 

The president will reflect on how some of the biggest decisions of his presidency — including the auto bailout and his healthcare reform law — spurred a streak of 70 straight months of private-sector job growth, a centerpiece of his presidential
legacy. 

“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. That we didn’t shy away from a challenge because it was hard,” Obama said in a video the White House released Monday.

Even here, however, there are some concerns. The stock market is off to a terrible start for 2016, and low oil prices and the upheaval in China’s economy has led to some fears of a global slump.

Still, Obama is likely to remind Americans of the crisis he inherited in 2009 and how far the country has come.

He’s scheduled to amplify that message with post-speech trips this week to a college in Omaha, Neb., and a high school in Baton Rouge, La. 

 

Applause lines

While Obama is expected to scrap the policy laundry list, he won’t shy away from asking Congress to complete some of the few remaining items on his agenda. 

There’s no better way to take Congress’s temperature about those proposals during the speech than watching which side of the aisle applauds. 

The president hopes to get Congress to approve a Pacific Rim trade deal this year and to pass legislation reforming the criminal justice system.

Many Democrats are skeptical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and it will be worth watching how many stand and applaud when Obama mentions it.

The president could also get a rousing reception from the entire chamber if he references Vice President Biden’s “moon shot” to cure cancer, which is reportedly still in development

But expect a one-sided reaction when Obama brings up his push for gun control, an issue that could boost Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: Muslim soldier was a hero but his father 'has no right' to criticize me Interim DNC chair to impose 'tough standards' after email leaks Mark Cuban campaigns for Clinton in hometown of Pittsburgh MORE and Democrats in the fall. 

 

Gitmo

Obama will likely receive a mixed response from Congress if he highlights his push to close the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. 

Shuttering the controversial facility is one of Obama’s biggest unfulfilled campaign promises, and his chief of staff pledged Sunday the president would close it before he leaves office next January

But plans to move Gitmo prisoners to the U.S. mainland has long faced opposition from Congress, including from many Democrats, who fear the detainees could pose a safety risk in their districts. 

Obama could stress the possibility of taking unilateral action if Congress rejects his yet-to-be released proposal to shut down the prison. 

 

Who’s tuning in

Tuesday’s speech may be the largest audience Obama receives during his final year in office.

But a prime-time TV audience isn’t what it once was in the age of cord cutting.

Last year’s address attracted record-low ratings: 31.7 million viewers tuned in, the lowest number since former President Clinton’s final address in 2000. 

The White House is doing all it can to expand Obama’s audience to cable-cutters and Millennials. Amazon, which employs former White House press secretary Jay Carney, will stream the speech through its on-demand video service. 

The White House on Monday signed up for Snapchat, where it pledged followers could view pre-speech “footage and angles you won’t find anywhere else.”

Obama will also turn to a favorite format on Friday, doing a round of interviews with three YouTube stars.