In final State of Union, Obama aims to define his presidency

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

NOTE: Many news reports will refer to President Obama’s lame-duck status.  A lame duck, in politics, is an elected official who is approaching the end of their term. The official is often seen as having less influence with other politicians due to their limited time left in office. Conversely, a lame duck is free to make decisions that exercise their standard powers with little fear of consequence, such as issuing executive orders or other controversial edicts.]

(by Josh Lederman, Associated Press) WASHINGTON — …Unlike the six State of the Union speeches he’s given before, President Obama plans to skip the traditional list of grand proposals, new policies and presidential appeals for new laws in favor of a bird’s eye view of what he has accomplished since 2009 and what’s left undone in his final year in office. Aides said the president on Tuesday night will give his assessment of what the country looks like in 2016 and the direction he hopes it will take in the future.

To the extent he can, Obama will also try to give a burst of energy to initiatives he is hoping to push past beyond the life of his administration.

At a marathon meeting with top advisers last week to ready his executive actions on gun control, Obama issued two directives, aides in the meeting said. The first: “Everything this year should be infused with a sense of possibility.” The second: “Don’t take the foot off the gas pedal.” …

Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Obama planned in his speech to cite his achievements to argue that “we’ve brought America back.”

This year, to keep the momentum going, Obama must contend with a presidential campaign that, as typically happens, is already reverberating loudly and will only get louder. The White House scheduled this year’s speech earlier than usual, in part to ensure Obama had room to run before voting starts with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

To the dismay of some in his party, Obama doesn’t plan to use the address as an opening argument for Democratic candidates in the November election. White House officials pointed to his speech at the Democratic National Convention in July and his first rally for the Democratic nominee as his opportunities to frame the campaign.

Still, anything Obama says or does in an election year will be heavily politicized. Republican candidates have already seized on Obama’s executive actions to tighten gun policies, a topic for Tuesday’s speech, as the latest example of why voters cannot trust Democrats. …

Obama’s best prospects for achievements this year are on the few issues where he and Congress at least partially agree. Central to his speech will be a renewed call for a criminal justice overhaul and for approval of his Asia-Pacific trade agreement, which many Republicans support (and many Democrats oppose).

He will face a less receptive crowd on foreign policy and homeland security. Republicans and even many Democrats have deemed his strategy for fighting the Islamic State group half-baked and feckless.

Obama insists he hasn’t abandoned his campaign promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, although GOP opposition that has been codified in statute makes that difficult to fulfill. Last year the White House said Obama would send Congress a new plan for closing the detention center, but there have been seemingly endless delays.

Republicans urged the president to leave Guantanamo, guns and other contentious issues out of his speech if he is serious about wanting to make progress before his term ends. …

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. said, “If he will focus on what he agrees on with Congress instead of what we disagree on, there’s quite a bit we could get done in 2016.”

Though viewership of the State of the Union has declined, Obama’s speech will still feature plenty of pageantry, including special guests invited to watch from the House viewing gallery. The White House said two people who inspired Obama during his first presidential campaign would be attending and that a seat in the first lady’s box would be empty to honor gun violence victims.

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, discussed as a potential vice presidential candidate, will give her party’s response to Obama’s address. Obama plans visits to Nebraska on Wednesday and Louisiana on Thursday to make the case for his priorities.

Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from the Associated Press.


NOTE to students: Read the information under “Background” and “Resources” below before answering the questions.

1. a) What is the State of the Union address?
b) When and where is the State of the Union given?

2. How is President Obama’s last State of the Union tonight expected to differ from his other State of the Union addresses?

3. a) What do Democrats want the President to use the address to do?
b) How do White House officials explain the President’s decision?
c) Do you think the President should make this part of his State of the Union? Explain your answer.

4. What issues are expected to be central to President Obama’s speech?

5. a) How does the Associated Press reporter describe both Democrats and Republicans’ view of President Obama’s strategy for fighting ISIS? (define the reporter’s descriptions)
b) Do you think this is a fair description? Explain your answer.

6. a) Which of the following issues do you think are most important for President Obama to focus on in his final State of the Union? Explain your answer.

  • global warming
  • gun control
  • closing GITMO
  • ISIS, Islamic terrorism around the world
  • Islamic terrorist attacks in the U.S. / how to ensure safety of Americans
  • Americans concern that terrorists could enter the U.S. as refugees; his decision to greatly increase the number of refugees from Syria and other countries to the U.S.
  • foreign policy (what to do about Iran, Syria, Russia, North Korea…)
  • the problems with ObamaCare
  • Iran nuclear weapons
  • North Korean nuclear weapon test
  • unrest in the Middle East
  • the 2016 presidential election, support for Democratic candidates

b) Ask a parent what issues he/she thinks President Obama should focus on in his State of the Union, and to explain his/her answer.

CHALLENGE — Watch the State of the Union address and answer the following questions:

1.  Tone is the attitude a speaker takes towards a subject. What was the tone of President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address?

2. What was the overall theme of the president’s speech?

3. List some of the things the President promised to do in his last year in office.

4.  Which issues of importance to the country did the President bypass altogether, or just mention briefly?

5.  What issue presented by President Obama was the most important to you?  Did any aspect of the speech disappoint you; inspire you?  Explain your answers.  (For the text and video of the 2016 State of the Union address,

6. a) Do you think the President is focusing on the correct issues? Explain your answer.
b) Ask a parent the same question.

7. Watch/read the Republican response to the President’s State of the Union at or What do you think of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s response?



“The President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  US Constitution Article II, Section 3

  • The State of the Union is an annual address presented by the President to the United States Congress. The address not only reports on the condition of the nation but also allows the president to outline his legislative agenda (for which he needs the cooperation of Congress) and his national priorities.
  • By tradition, the President makes this report annually.
  • While not required to deliver a speech, every president since Woodrow Wilson has made the State of the Union report as a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress. Before that time, most presidents delivered the State of the Union as a written report.
  • Since Wilson, the State of the Union is given typically each January before a joint session of the United States Congress and is held in the House of Representatives chamber of the United States Capitol.
  • George Washington gave the first state of the union address on January 8, 1790 at the Federal Hall in New York City.
  • Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, did not continue this practice. In 1801, Jefferson detailed his priorities and sent written copies of his message to each house of Congress. Jefferson “was concerned that the practice of appearing before the representatives of the people was too similar to the British monarch’s ritual of addressing the opening of each new Parliament with a list of policy mandates, rather than ‘recommendations.’”
  • For the next 112 years, the President’s annual message was written, not spoken.
  • In the 20th Century, the oral address was revived, first with Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Like Washington, he spoke to both Houses of Congress. Ten years later, Calvin Coolidge broadcast his address on radio.
  • Franklin D Roosevelt called the speech the “State of the Union” in 1935. In 1947, Harry Truman, FDR’s vice president – who succeeded him as President, was the first to broadcast his State of the Union address on television.
  • Since 1966, the State of the Union address has been followed by a response from a member of the opposition party.


  • It is customary for the opposing party to respond to a President’s State of the Union address. Washington House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers will give the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address. Watch Gov. Nikki Haley’s response at: or
  • Liberals generally support Democratic President Obama. For a liberal perspective of President Obama’s speech, go to the liberal website (updated)
  • Conservatives generally oppose the President’s policies. For a conservative perspective of President Obama’s speech, go to the conservative website
  • For information on Presidential State of the Union Addresses, go to AmericanPresidencyProject.
  • Watch or read President Obama’s entire speech at
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