President Barack Obama will deliver his last State of the Union speech at a moment when the fear and anger in the American electorate seem to have caught even him by surprise.
His challenge as he takes the biggest stage in American politics Tuesday is whether his message can rise above the election-season vitriol.
Obama has promised a speech that, in his words, cuts through the “day-to-day noise of Washington” and celebrates America’s capacity “to come together as one American family.” Instead of a to-do list of policy proposals that have little chance of passing Congress, he has said he plans to deliver a speech that will describe “who we are” as a nation, or perhaps more accurately, who Obama in the last year of his presidency would like us to be.
The problem for the president in his seventh year in office is that the gulf between his vision of a unified America, one that he has trumpeted from his earliest days on the national scene, and the current political reality has never seemed wider. This final address from the House chamber represents one of his last, best chances to frame the November election.
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On issues ranging from guns, immigration reform and Middle Eastern refugees, Obama faces a deeply divided American public. Some of his signature political victories from 2015, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the opening to Cuba, have provoked a fierce Republican backlash.
The divide is perhaps deepest on issues of war and terrorism, which are likely to dominate Obama’s last year in office as well as the upcoming election.
Obama, his speechwriters and his national security team were still working on drafts of the speech last week and over the weekend, said White House officials.
In the battle against the Islamic State, Obama has struggled to balance intense fear of terrorism after last fall’s attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., with his conviction that there are no fast fixes to the problems in either Iraq or Syria. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, occupies parts of both countries.
Only a year ago, Obama used his State of the Union address to declare the end of an era marked by 15 years of terrorism and continuous war. “Tonight we turn the page,” the president began last January. “Tonight for the first time since (2001), our combat mission in Afghanistan is over.”
Today there are fewer than 15,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, down from a high of 180,000 when Obama took office. But the president’s “turn the page” metaphor already seems dated. In the last few weeks, seven U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and the president’s top commander there has said he does not think further cuts to the current force of 9,800 U.S. troops are realistic anytime soon.
The State of the Union offers Obama another big opportunity to make his case that America is strong and secure enough to stay the course and stick to its values. But it also presents him a huge political opportunity to talk to the country about what kind of person should replace him. The worry among establishment Republicans is that Obama will seize upon remarks by candidates such as Donald Trump to discredit the party.
Obama faces a similar challenge on domestic issues such as gun violence, and he has sought to appeal to universal American values. “The majority of people in this country are a lot more sensible than what you see in Washington,” Obama said at a CNN town hall meeting on the gun issue last week. He derided the capital and Congress as a place where “the loudest, shrillest voices” dominate.
At the State of the Union, the president will use silence to make his case. The White House said it will leave one seat empty in the first lady’s State of the Union guest box to highlight the toll of gun violence on the country.