WASHINGTON (AFP) – Barack Obama gives his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, perhaps the last opportunity of his presidency to sway a national audience and frame the 2016 election.
The White House is promising an unorthodox speech, with Obama eschewing the traditional checklist of legislative priorities.
Instead, aides said that America’s first black president will use a “singular moment” to define his place in the history books and stoke optimism about the future.
The speech, under construction since the autumn, will challenge Americans to address big unfinished business, from race to gun violence to drug abuse.
Not for the first time during Obama’s seven years in the White House, he will lean heavily on his dazzling rhetorical skills to push forward his agenda.
Obama is unlikely to dwell on the 2016 election race for too long, but in embracing optimism, the White House hopes to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans.
Around 30 million viewers are expected to watch live, a nationwide audience that may only be matched in political terms during the Democratic nominating convention later this year.
Obama aides are trying to leverage the moment for all its worth, amplifying his message across social and digital media.
Amazon is planning to air the speech on demand, the White House has joined Snapchat for the occasion and will use Genius — a program that started life as a font for rap lyrics — to annotate Obama’s remarks.
Afterwards, Obama will travel to Nebraska and Louisiana to sell his message and be interviewed by three YouTube celebrities.
HIGH RISK, HIGH REWARD
It is a high-risk strategy for Obama, who with just a year left in office could look cripplingly out of touch if he misjudges the nation’s mood.
Amid poisoned politics, terror threats and middle-class malaise, some 67 percent of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, according to a recent Rasmussen poll.
While unemployment rates are low, the economy is growing and the tumult of the financial crisis has passed, wage growth is lackluster and the gap between rich and poor is cavernous.
“Workers don’t experience statistics, they feel market forces,” wrote former George W. Bush aide Matt McDonald in a recent paper for Hamilton Place Strategies, a consultancy.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged economic and security challenges, but said the willingness of Republicans “to exploit people’s fears and insecurities and anxieties has infected the political debate.”
“The president’s reaction to that though is that he has never been more confident about our ability to confront successfully those challenges.”
Obama has long thought of his presidency in such historic terms. But the broad sweep of his speech is also born of necessity.
He faces a hostile Republican Congress united only in its disdain for him and his agenda.
Republican criticism is likely to focus on Obama’s handling of foreign policy, in particular the rise of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
“US engagement has for too long been defined by whether troops are deployed,” said one senior White House official describing Obama’s intention to defend his foreign policy.
The speech begins at 0200 GMT on Wednesday.