Embarking on his final year in office, President Barack Obama will use Tuesday’s State of the Union address to present an optimistic vision built on economic progress under his watch while seeking to ease Americans’ growing concern about national security and terrorism.
Also embedded in Obama’s remarks to lawmakers and a prime-time television audience will be a call to stay the course with Democrats in the November election. Much of what he has done, both in the U.S. and abroad, could be wiped away by a Republican president, increasing his imperative to keep his party in the White House.
Obama will deliver his speech before a Republican-led Congress hostile to his ideas and angry about his executive orders on issues from guns to immigration.
While Obama won’t delve into the specifics of the tumultuous 2016 contest, his aides have made clear that he hopes an upbeat address can serve as a counterpoint to what the White House sees as a doom-and-gloom message from GOP candidates, particularly on security issues.
The address comes three weeks before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, which kicks off voting in the presidential race. Some of the candidates vying to succeed Obama will be in the House chamber for the president’s remarks, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent running for the Democratic nomination.
Eager to stave off lame-duck status as long as possible, Obama’s advisers have brushed off suggestions that his speech will amount to a victory lap or a capstone to his presidency. Instead, they say he’ll emphasize that there’s more to do during his last year, including finalizing a Pacific Rim trade pact, enacting criminal justice reforms, implementing the landmark nuclear deal with Iran and building on detente with Cuba.
But election year politics have curtailed Obama’s already limited ability to work with the Republican-led Congress. As a result, there will be few, if any, new policy proposals in his remarks.
Republicans are pressing the president to outline a more comprehensive strategy for defeating the Islamic State and preventing terror attacks in the United States.
“While we’re certainly not expecting much new, there is one thing that we hope to hear from the president. And that is a comprehensive plan to defeat (the Islamic State),” said House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Tuesday’s address marks the first since Ryan took the helm in the House, and he’ll assume the traditional speaker’s seat behind the president and alongside Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama is expected to reiterate steps his administration is taking to curb the Islamic State group’s power in the Middle East and limit its ability to carry out attacks in the West. Attacks last year in Paris and San Bernardino, California, ratcheted up Americans’ fears about the terror group’s reach, and the White House has acknowledged that it did not fully grasp the public’s level of concern quickly enough.
Tuesday’s address could be one of Obama’s last opportunities to claim a large television audience as president. However, the State of the Union has suffered a major drop-off in viewers in recent years. Last year, Obama’s speech reached 31.7 million viewers, according to Nielson, down from 52 million for his first State of the Union and 62 million for George W. Bush in 2003.
In a bid to amplify his message, the White House rolled out an array of social media programming geared not only toward those who won’t watch on TV but also those looking for a “second screen” experience.
The efforts include a new White House account on Snapchat, where Obama’s aides were sharing behind-the-scenes images and videos of preparations through the see-it-before-it-disappears app. Viewers watching the speech through a YouTube livestream were invited to return on Friday when three YouTube celebrities quiz the president live from the East Room.
Republicans selected South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to give the opposing party’s traditional post-speech response. Haley is seen by some Republicans as a potential running mate for the party’s eventual presidential nominee.