Obama to rebut critics in his last Union speech

He is also expected to frame the debate on who should succeed him as US president

WASHINGTON • For the final time, President Barack Obama will mount the rostrum in the House chamber today to deliver a State of the Union address.

But this time, aides said, he will not bring with him a long list of proposals that will languish in Congress - after all these years, a victory of experience over hope.

Instead, he plans a thematic message that effectively will be as much a campaign agenda as a governing document. Mr Obama hopes to use what may be the largest television audience left in his presidency to frame the debate about who should replace him and where the US should go from here.

This is a decisive moment for the two-term president, the pivot point where he goes from priority setter to celebrity spectator in the contest for the future. His speech and the days that follow offer a last chance to bolster his lagging poll ratings, define his legacy, rebut negative narratives emerging from the campaign trail and challenge his would-be successors to address the issues he deems most vital.

Aides say he wants to present an upbeat, optimistic view of America after seven years that will contrast with the gloomy portrayals offered by Republican candidates, a task aided by strong job creation numbers, but complicated by continuing turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere.

GOING TO THE PEOPLE

Last year, he spoke to Congress. This year, he'll be speaking more to the American public.

MS JENNIFER PSAKI, White House communications director, on President Barack Obama's last State of the Union address.

While he will introduce few policy proposals, he also hopes to generate support for his approach to issues such as climate change, gun control, immigration and income inequality that can boost Mrs Hillary Clinton, the front runner for the Democratic nomination, even if it does not result in further action during his tenure.

"Last year, he spoke to Congress," said Ms Jennifer Psaki, the White House communications director. "This year, he'll be speaking more to the American public."

But it is a public that does not share his sunny assessment of the state of the union.

In a survey by The New York Times and CBS News in December, 68 per cent of Americans said the country was on the wrong track, the highest such figure in more than two years. Many were unimpressed with the President's performance on critical issues like the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

That sour public mood has challenged Mr Obama throughout his presidency.

Since he took office, the proportion of Americans who consider the US heading in the right direction in Times-CBS surveys has never outnumbered those who think it is on the wrong track.

That was true for most of his predecessor's tenure, too. Republican presidential candidates have tapped that sentiment.

"The state of our union is a mess," Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said on Sunday's Meet the Press on NBC News. "We can't beat ISIS. Our military is falling back. It's not being properly taken care of. Our (veterans) aren't being properly taken care of. Obamacare... is going to fail very soon and, probably in '17, our healthcare - we don't have borders. We don't have anything."

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, said "the whole Middle East is in terrible shape" under Mr Obama. "So I'd like to see the President step up here in his last year and lay out a plan for the defeat of ISIS," he said on This Week on ABC News. "It's a good starting place."

That sort of talk has got under Mr Obama's skin, and he wants to use the nation's biggest platform to push back. The speech comes less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses kick off the voting for his successor, and one unspoken goal for Mr Obama is to set the table for Mrs Clinton.

The decision to not focus on a string of sweeping new proposals reflects his recognition that he has little chance of securing major legislation from a Republican Congress.

Two areas both sides see as likeliest for agreement are an overhaul of the criminal justice system and approval of Mr Obama's Asia-Pacific free trade agreement.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'Obama to rebut critics in his last Union speech'. Print Edition | Subscribe