President Barack Obama will take an optimistic message about the future of America to Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening, using his final State of the Union to reassure a distressed public and challenge a restive Congress.
Obama hopes to use his final address to lawmakers to strike a stark contrast with what the White House has described as “gloom and doom” talk from the Republican presidential candidates about the trajectory of the country. He and his top aides are previewing the prime time speech as a break from tradition, saying Obama will speak in broad terms rather than lay out a sweeping legislative agenda.
To address the challenges he will discuss, Obama will say Americans must "fix our politics," according to excerpts released by the White House Tuesday evening.
"A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests," Obama will say. But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”
Earlier Tuesday, Obama told NBC News that “There's no doubt that politics in Washington are so much more divided than the American people are. And part of what I want to do in this last address is to remind people: You know what? We've got a lot of good things going for us, and if we can get our politics right, it turns out that we're not as divided on the ideological spectrum as people make us out to be.”
SOTU to Focus on ‘Future Generations’
White House aides also were deployed for a slew of television interviews, describing Obama as more optimistic than ever that the American people are up to the challenges facing the country.
In the address, Obama will call this "a time of extraordinary change – change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world," according to the excerpts.
He will acknowledge that such change will cause "economic disruptions that strain working families," according to excerpts released by the White House. But, in keeping with his upbeat tone, will say the change will bring medical breakthroughs and spread education to "remote villages."
"And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate," Obama will say, noting the country has faced eras of change before.
"Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control," Obama will say. "And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the “dogmas of the quiet past.”
In an apparent swipe at the GOP presidential candidates, the president will say "we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before.”
Obama’s upbeat message faces a skeptical audience. After all, a senior House GOP leadership aide circulated a new CBS/New York Times poll that found only 27 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is headed in the right direction, while two-thirds think it is on the wrong path. The latest Economist/YouGov survey found similar results with 63 percent of respondents saying the country is “off on the wrong track” and only 26 percent say it is “generally headed in the right direction.”
The president will try and convince them otherwise, and Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the big speech will start with Obama addressing his stewardship of the economy.
Since Obama took office in January 2009, technological advances have translated into Americans losing “all kinds of jobs in a variety of sectors,” Earnest said.
“So the challenge for this country and for the government of the American people is how are we going to support our workforce as we're going through these changes and what can we do to help our workforce capitalize on those kinds of changes,” Earnest told MSNBC, previewing Obama’s expected message.
William Galston of the Brookings Institution said the president “needs to talk about the progress his administration has made on the economy without expressing complacency.”
“The American people think it’s in bad shape,” said Galston, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, citing sluggish annual economic growth and stagnant wages.
“People are relieved we’re not in a recession but that’s not their benchmark,” he added. “It used to be if you worked hard, you’d be better off and your children would be even more better off. People just aren’t sure that’s the case anymore.”
Obama’s top aides are making clear their boss will — though subtly — try to convince Americans they are better off under a Democratic administration. And while the White House says the address is not being written as a political campaign speech, expect it to sound a lot like one.
“I know that there are some candidates, particularly on the Republican side, who have concluded that it's in their interest to try to exploit people's fears and insecurities about those changes,” Earnest said. “The fact is the president's never been more optimistic about the ability of our country and the capacity of our people to meet those challenges.”
Where Obama sees reasons for optimism, the Republican candidates running to replace him, and the party’s congressional leaders, see signs for alarm on issues that range from the health of the economy to immigration, from access to guns to national security.
The GOP front-runner, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that “our economy’s doing horribly.”
“Right now,” Trump said in his signature dramatic style, “the state of our union is a mess.”
House GOP leaders made it clear Tuesday that they’ll judge Obama’s speech by what he says on national security.
“While we’re not certainly expecting much new, there is one thing that we hope to hear from the president — and that is a comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said at a news conference, referring to the Islamic State. “Americans are so anxious right now about their security, about what’s going on in the world. Just look at what happened today in Istanbul, in a tourist district where at least 10 people were killed.”
For its part, the White House says it ranks violent Islamic extremist organizations, like ISIS and al Qaeda, as America’s top threat.
Obama will try to “reassure the American people … that just as we were relentless in going after al Qaeda and taking out their leadership, disrupting their plots and dismantling that network, we are doing the same thing with [ISIS] today,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Tuesday.
Another national security issue central to Obama’s final-year agenda is his desire to fulfill his campaign promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has held suspected terrorists since 2002. His administration has been transferring cleared inmates out of the facility, paring its population to 104.
Republican Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Tim Scott of South Carolina plan to wage a silent protest. The trio plans to sit together during the State of the Union in a show of opposition to interest the Obama administration has shown to moving some Guantanamo detainees to prison facilities in their states, a Roberts aide said.
Meantime, House Republican leaders also discussed their low expectations for Obama’s speech during the news conference.
“If the president’s last State of the Union is anything like the rest of his presidency, we know what to expect: status quo, ideas from on high, empty words,” House Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rogers said.
House Republicans plan to spend the year crafting an agenda that will contrast the GOP with Obama and the Democratic presidential candidates, aiming to convince voters to elect a leader who shares their ideals.
“Next year, when it’s a Republican president coming to address Congress,” Ryan said, “we will have a mandate to do the big things to get the country back on track.”
Republican leaders appear eager to appeal to younger voters. On Monday, House Republicans released a video ad featuring several young speakers, one calling for a long-term plan to create a “confident America.” Another speaker says “the American people have a choice to make: Do we want a future of business as usual, or a future driven by bold ideas that empower people?”
“In 2016, Americans have a choice between two different futures,” House Republicans said in a tweet accompanying the spot.
The ad shows Obama at the start of his previous seven addresses to a joint session of Congress, detailing how many words Obama uttered during each speech.
The president used the most words (7,263) in 2010 and the fewest in 2009 (5,902). Last year, Obama needed 6,718 words.
“Mr. President,” says a graphic in the ad, “empty words aren’t going to cut it in 2016.”
Lindsey McPherson and Niels Lesniewski contributed. Contact Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.
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