Obama to look to future and past in last State of the Union speech

US president set to make direct appeal to American people to fulfil his policy wish-list

US president Barack Obama waves at the start of his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on anuary 20th, 2015. Photograph:  Joshua Roberts/Reuters

US president Barack Obama waves at the start of his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on anuary 20th, 2015. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

 

Barack Obama will stand on the dais of the US House of Representatives tonight to deliver his final State of the Union in a speech that is being previewed as a direct call to action to the American people.

State of the Union addresses tend to be dull laundry lists of policy hopes and legislative wishes, most of which are rarely achieved but which presidents like to flag regardless. Few presidents hit on big themes in this flagship presidential address of Washington’s political calendar.

Franklin D Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech after his third election to the White House in 1941 stands out as an exception.

The White House has flagged this year’s address as different, saying that Obama’s State of the Union address will be non-traditional.

Much of what Obama has sought in previous State of the Union speeches – comprehensive immigration reform, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, stronger laws to end the gun violence epidemic, free nationwide early and community college education – has fallen on deaf ears. The Democratic president has been unable to win over a Congress controlled by Republicans to his agenda.

Obama comes to Capitol Hill just a week after trying to circumvent politicians there by using his executive authority to extend gun controls so he shouldn’t be surprised if he again receives a frosty reception from Republicans who now hold the majority in both houses of Congress.

Congress confrontation

Oregon

The president himself is leading by example. He wrote in a New York Times opinion article last week that he “will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform”.

Obama showed his emotional side last week, shedding tears as he unveiled his executive actions on gun rules and recalled the deaths of primary school children at the 2012 massacre in Sandy Hook.

Expect to see perhaps different emotions from Obama and a more fiery president tonight as he addresses the very politicians who have refused to pass new gun laws just days after accusing them of being held hostage by the gun lobby. He appears set to appeal directly to the American people responsible for electing these politicians.

“You’ll hear him talk about every American having a shot in this changing economy. You’ll hear him talk about using all the elements of our national power to protect and grow the influence of this country,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told CNN reporter Jake Tapper on Sunday.

“And importantly, Jake, you’ll hear the president talk about making sure that every American has a chance to influence this democracy. Not the select few, not the millionaires and the billionaires, but every American.”

The list of guests in the First Lady’s Box who will watch the president’s speech hint at the likely subjects: an empty seat for the victims of gun violence; a beneficiary of Obama’s rescue of the auto industry; a man who helps people secure health insurance under the president’s landmark healthcare law; a criminal justice reformer; a Syrian refugee; a man whose Supreme Court case secured same-sex marriage;and a Muslim US army veteran among others.

Obama’s speech will be part valedictory, lauding his achievements of the past seven years.

In an election year when vitriolic campaigns push policies at odds with the president’s, Obama will also be keen to use this primetime address to influence voters to pick a like-minded successor to complete his wish-list of policies.

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