President Obama will deliver his last State of the Union address Tuesday at a moment when fear and anger seem to be driving both the American electorate and the candidates seeking to replace him in the White House.
His challenge? Communicate a message big enough to rise above the election-season vitriol.
To that end, the White House has promised a “non-traditional” speech that, in the president’s words, will cut through the “day-to-day noise of Washington” and celebrate the country’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, whom 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 he has trumpeted from his earliest days on the national scene, and the 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.
On issues including 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.
“We all expected to be in a different place, and we’re not,” said Julianne Smith, a former Obama White House official and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Obama, his speechwriters and his national security team were still working on drafts of the speech last week and over the weekend, White House officials said.
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 Iraq or Syria. The Islamic State occupies parts of both countries.
The United States is counting on local forces, backed by U.S. air power, to slowly take territory from Islamic State fighters. A bolstered counterterrorism effort will seek in the coming months to kill the group’s senior leaders through drone strikes and raids, officials say.
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 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over.”
Today there are fewer than 15,000 U.S. 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 past few weeks, seven American 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 effort to defeat the Islamic State will be “an overarching focus to everything we do around the world this year,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, told reporters this month.
The president has struggled of late to calibrate his remarks to match the country’s mood. “So much of his legacy was built around ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Smith said.
Obama has responded with a campaign that emphasizes the limits of American power to repair the Middle East and seeks to keep U.S. forces from being drawn too deeply into chaotic quagmires. The president’s approach has provoked heavy criticism from Republicans, who are promising more bombs and tighter restrictions on Muslim refugees.
“We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), describing his plan for the Islamic State. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has proposed a temporary ban on all Muslim immigrants to the United States.
Obama initially mocked the heated Republican rhetoric as fearful, weak and politically craven. “When candidates say we wouldn’t admit 3-year-old orphans — that’s political posturing,” he said in November.
A few weeks later, in a prime-time address to the nation, the president took a different course.
“The threat from terrorism is real,” he acknowledged. “But we will overcome it. Our success won’t depend on tough talk or abandoning our values or giving in to fear.”
The State of the Union offers Obama another chance to make his case that the United States 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 like Trump to discredit the party.
“I suspect he’ll be very tempted to paint the entire party with a broad brush as anti-immigrant, rather than seek out common ground,” said Michael Green, a former George W. Bush White House official and a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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 places 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 guest box to highlight the toll of gun violence on the country.
On no issue has the country’s growing division been more shocking to the White House than on immigration. The president once hoped to find common ground with Republicans on the matter.
He gave up on Congress in late 2014, issuing an executive order that would defer the deportation of up to 5 million illegal immigrants, most of them parents of U.S. citizens and those who arrived illegally as children.
Republicans immediately denounced him as an “imperial president.” Texas and 25 other states sued to block the program, which has yet to enroll a single person as the two sides fight it out in federal court.
Since then, the immigration debate has veered sharply to the right. Trump vaulted to the top of Republican polls in June after he suggested that most Mexican immigrants are “rapists,” “drug dealers” and “killers,” and promised to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants and erect a wall to keep them out.
Obama, meanwhile, has tried to make the case that new immigrants are an essential part of the American story. In December, the president presided over a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives for immigrants from 25 countries.
“In these new Americans we see our own American stories — our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles, our cousins,” Obama said. “. . . They set out for a place that was more than just a piece of land, but an idea: America — a place where we can be a part of something bigger.”
The December address did not resonate much amid the clamor of an increasingly loud, divisive and angry presidential campaign. The State of the Union gives Obama a chance to command a much bigger audience on what aides called “the grandest stage in all of American politics.”
In the days after his speech, the president will travel deep into the Republican heartland. In Omaha and then in Baton Rouge, he plans to continue to make his case, betting that in even the reddest of states, he will find people who are willing to listen.