President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address Tuesday night to a Republican-controlled Congress and an electorate already tuning in to the campaigns to replace him.
With little prospect for any final-year landmark legislative achievements, Obama won’t present a laundry list of proposals to be debated and dissected by Congress, according to White House previews of the speech.
The president, instead, is expected to talk about some of what he sees as the long-term successes of his past seven years, the challenges the nation faces in the decades ahead and the decision voters will make in November.
“This speech is about what he did right — not just to historians but to voters — and that Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders in the White House would be a continuation of that,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
So, for Obama, a two-term president who rode into office buoyed by promises of “hope” and “change,” the ability to make the case that he has largely delivered will be critical to helping define his legacy, political experts say.
And in order to help preserve that legacy and the gains he feels were made under his administration it will be equally important for him to convince Americans that a like-minded president leading the nation is the best course of action, Zelizer said.
The White House indicated as much on Monday.
“The president’s main focus will be on the opportunities and challenges that are facing the country not just in the year ahead, but what’s critical are the kinds of decisions that we make now will have a significant impact on not just the next generation of Americans but future generations of Americans,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
The White House said that during the State of the Union address the president will describe a nation that, under his leadership, bounced back from a crippling economic recession and protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He will highlight his administration’s domestic policy achievements on such issues as health care and same-sex marriage, efforts further shored by historic Supreme Court rulings. He’ll point to his record on environmental policy, including helping reach an unprecedented climate accord last month, and his administration’s role in the economic recovery and improved jobs numbers.
On the foreign policy front, he will touch on his administration’s role in several areas: securing an accord with Iran and five other world powers aimed at preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, a multinational trade deal, ending the war in Iraq and improving Cuba relations.
On at least one issue deeply personal to the president, Obama will also send a somber and symbolic message: A seat in the House gallery will be left empty to symbolize the victims of gun violence.
Last week, Obama unveiled a series of executive actions aimed at preventing more mass killings.
But while the president’s tone might be laudatory in hailing all that he has done, the American electorate has mixed views. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last month found that the president’s approval rating has slipped to 43 percent — its lowest level in over a year.
By comparison, just before former President Bill Clinton’s last State of the Union address in 2000, his approval rating was at 64 percent. Former President George W. Bush’s approval rating was at 34 percent just before his final State of the Union in 2008.
Seven-in-10 Americans believe the country is currently headed in the wrong direction — the highest percentage since Aug. 2014.
Pollsters cited the “unevenness of the economic recovery” as one of the reasons for Obama’s plummeting poll numbers.
And Republicans — especially those running to replace him — have homed in on this season of discontent with the president.
“Bluntly, Obama needs to try to lift his job approval rating. He’s in the low to mid 40s," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "In order for a Democrat to win in a two-way race, Obama has to be somewhere around 50 percent at least. That’s certainly what modern history tells us.”
Sabato has some advice for the president in whom to emulate to help propel his party in November.
“So Obama might try a little more Bill Clinton, who was famous for using the State of the Union speech to detail all kinds of popular ideas and micro-initiatives," he said.