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5 Things To Watch For In Obama's Final State Of The Union

By Mara Liasson | NPR
Monday, January 11, 2016

On Tuesday night, President Obama will give his final State of the Union address. It's the last big speech many Americans will watch him deliver, and he wants to leave a good impression.

Here are five things to watch for.

1. How different will this speech be from his past State of the Union addresses?

White House aides are promising that this speech will be different. Instead of the usual laundry list of legislative proposals, the speech will be thematic and future-oriented. President Obama described what he wants the speech to focus on in a video the White House sent out previewing the speech.

"Not just the remarkable progress we've made, not just what I want to get done in the year ahead, but what we all need to do together in the years to come, the big things that will guarantee an even stronger, better, more prosperous America for our kids — the America we believe in. That's what's on my mind."

This makes sense. With attention turning to the race to succeed him, the window for passing major pieces of legislation through an oppositional Congress is closing fast.

But there are still things the president wants Congress to do.

2. What are Obama's legislative priorities?

The president will probably reiterate his call for a hike in the minimum wage, as well as tax reform that frees up money for infrastructure investment. But those are big reaches. More realistically, the White House is hopeful they can get Congress to approve the big trans-Pacific trade agreement and a bill overhauling the criminal justice system. Expect to hear Obama offer an olive branch to the Republicans on those potentially bipartisan issues.

3. How will the president try to shape his legacy?

This is a valedictory speech, and Obama will try to frame his accomplishments in the most positive light. He'll talk about the dramatic recovery of the auto industry, the improving employment situation and the initiatives he's taken on his own to combat climate change, enact tougher gun background checks and reopen relations with Cuba.

The White House announced over the weekend the guests who will join first lady Michelle Obama in the House chamber. Those selections nod to the arc of Obama's presidency, and the president will no doubt nod to them on Tuesday night. They include Edith Childs, the South Carolina woman who inspired the "Fired up! Ready to go!" chant during Obama's first campaign, one of the first women to graduate from Army Ranger School, a DREAMer, the lead plaintiff in the historic Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, an empty chair for victims of gun violence, a criminal justice reform advocate, an Affordable Care Act "navigator" and many others.

Of course, the best way for President Obama to cement his legacy is to help elect a successor from his own party.

4. How will Obama use the speech to help Hillary Clinton's campaign?

In his last State of the Union address, the president framed the coming election in terms of the economic debate. He talked about widely shared prosperity and focused on inclusive growth, not just redistribution. And that's the frame Hillary Clinton has chosen for her campaign. Expect to hear more about that on Tuesday night.

Also listen for how often the president touches on hot-button issues that play well with the Democratic base, like climate change, gun control, immigration reform or gay rights. The White House promises this won't be a "political" speech, but the subtext will be clear: We've come a long way. We have a long way to go, so let's not let the Republicans take us backward.

5. What effect will the speech have?

Most State of the Union addresses have a very short shelf life. But a well-received SOTU can deliver a political boost. President Obama is hoping this one does. The best way a president can help elect a successor from his own party is to get his approval ratings up — above 50 percent, if possible. Obama has been stuck in the mid-40s for months, below the 50 percent that President Reagan enjoyed at this point in his second term or the 60 percent Bill Clinton had. If he can improve his standing, he could help Hillary Clinton and his own legacy.

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