Facing a divided country, an invigorated opposition in both houses of Congress and the prospect of his policies becoming unraveled if a Republican wins the White House in November, President Obama delivers his final State of the Union address Tuesday night with an eye toward evading the ‘lame duck’ label – and cementing his legacy.
In excerpts of prepared remarks released ahead of time, Obama notes we live in a time of "extraordinary change," but adds “The future we want – opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids – all that is within our reach.
"But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest rejected the notion that Americans already are looking past the sitting president and insisted Obama is “driving” the debate on everything from immigration to gun control to the economy.
“It’s actually the president who’s putting forward more ideas than anybody else,” Earnest told Fox News on Tuesday.
Republicans don’t quite see it that way. House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday that “we're not certainly expecting much new.” But he did call on the president to outline in his address a “comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS.”
The pressure to do so represents just one of the many challenges for Obama as he navigates his final year in office, and gives the American people a roadmap to that year Tuesday night.
He took office in 2009 aiming to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the rise of ISIS has dragged the U.S. back into the fight in Iraq – and security concerns hang over efforts to draw down troops in Afghanistan.
On the campaign trail, GOP candidates have demanded the U.S. take a tougher approach and some have vowed to step up the anti-ISIS bombing campaign if elected.
They’ve also threatened to unravel Obama policies ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to his signature health care law. The president just vetoed the first ObamaCare repeal bill to reach his desk, but he won’t wield the veto pen for long.
As he defends the policies he’s put in place, Obama also is expected to touch on the major goals for his final year – including on gun control, but also his intention to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
Earnest reiterated Obama’s intention to do so on Tuesday.
“This certainly is not a problem that he wants to pass on to the next president,” Earnest said of the Guantanamo prison.
He still faces congressional resistance. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he hopes Obama “will fail in his plan.”
At a breakfast with reporters, Speaker Ryan voiced concern that the president would effectively try to bait Republicans in the address and cast them as “angry reactionaries.”
“The president will have five or six straw men in the speech, I’m sure,” Ryan said. “And he’ll present a very glossy rendition of the last seven years. He’ll try to set some verbal traps along the way and it will be a very political and pointed speech, I would guess.”
As for the state of the economy, Ryan said, “I think it’s a mess.”
While the president is sure to explain his final year agenda Tuesday night, this speech is expected to be less of a to-do list than past State of the Union addresses.
The president will speak in broad strokes about what he feels the U.S. can and should aspire to in the future. And he will offer an implicit rebuttal to the sense of pessimism reflected in polls and in the media.
As for the coming months, he’ll offer a renewed call for unfinished pieces of his agenda that already have a foothold in Congress, such as approval for his Asia-Pacific free trade pact and bipartisan efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, argued Obama's more sanguine message would contrast with the "doom and gloom" attitude being peddled by Republicans this year on the campaign trail and in Congress.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.