Obama's Last State of Union Speech Set for Jan. 12

Obama's Last State of Union Speech Set for Jan. 12
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In the heat of the 2016 presidential contest and earlier in January than usual, President Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address seven weeks from Tuesday.

Obama’s speech, kicking off his last 12 months in office, is expected to blend a long list of domestic and international challenges the president knows he will hand to his successor, framed against achievements he sees as hallmarks of his time in office.

The address will be delivered well ahead of January’s final week, which is when Obama and many of his modern predecessors delivered addresses in past years. Since 1934, State of the Union assessments occurred at the beginning rather than the end of years. And while a written message to Congress was sufficient for Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford and Carter as they prepared to leave office, presidents since Ronald Reagan stuck with televised speeches in the Capitol to kick off their final months in power.

Obama’s Jan. 12 address, officially scheduled at the invitation of Congress, was negotiated to accommodate competing events, lawmaker schedules and the swirl of politics. Rather than dwell on a looming budget standoff with Republicans, as Obama has done during State of the Union addresses since 2011, he may be able to tout areas of budgetary common ground, or at least deferred decision making.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, in a Monday statement announcing next month’s event, said Congress and Obama have “an opportunity and an obligation to find common ground to advance the nation’s interests at home and abroad. We also owe it to the American people to present solutions that address the challenges they face.”

Ryan has criticized Obama for bemoaning the absence of bipartisanship, while at the same time bypassing Congress to rule by executive fiat. In the speaker’s view, House and Senate Republicans have an opening to craft a conservative agenda in the next few months that could be ready for passage, should a GOP nominee be elected to lead the country. The new speaker is keen to showcase contrasts between Republicans in Washington and Democrats, including Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is the party’s frontrunner, according to polls.

Crafting a State of the Union address melds agenda-setting, effective messaging, legislative and fiscal tradeoffs, and a White House hunt for headline-grabbing news and buzz that can propel a president through multiple news cycles over weeks. In a final year, a State of the Union address can help explain what has already occurred during a presidency, or foreshadow the future.

Coming days before a Jan. 17 Democratic presidential candidate debate in Charleston, S.C., and just weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire voters kick off early caucus and primary contests in February, Obama’s speech will find its way into the presidential race. Obama’s legislative days may be nearing an end, but with job approval numbers between 45 and 50 percent heading toward his eighth year, the president continues to hold sway among many Democrats, particularly liberals, young people and African-Americans.

Whether he has coattails to offer a Democratic presidential nominee next year remains unclear.

Obama, who next summer will deliver a nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, will ask voters in July to help finish the work of his presidency by electing a Democrat. Among the pending projects still unfinished: the battle against terrorists, immigration reform, gun safety legislation, binding climate change restrictions and enforcement, and economic policies to help raise wages and boost the middle class.

The president has begun, during interviews and news conferences, to place his agenda in the context of history, recognizing that his time is dwindling. While in Paris this week for an international climate summit to forge commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, Obama’s aides described his legacy in terms of “American leadership.” They left it to the president to go further during a Paris news conference scheduled Tuesday before Obama’s return to Washington.

“Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to get a greater sense from him about how he sees how these actions are likely to be judged by history,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest advised reporters traveling with the president.

Asked if Obama seeks to be the president who “saved the planet,” Earnest said, “I think every president wants to have that moniker.”

Obama won his election contests in 2008 and 2012, but Democratic candidates at other levels of government have not fared as well. Since 2008, Democrats have lost 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats, 12 governor’s offices, and more than 900 state legislative seats. At the state level, Obama’s legacy in terms of seats lost has been described as the “worst of any modern president.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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