Obama seeks optimistic tone for his final State of the Union speech

Despite fierce opposition in Congress, growing doubts about his leadership at home and abroad, and barely a year to complete his agenda, President Obama is crafting his final State of the Union address around a theme that aides sum up in one word: optimism.

There will be no 30-page fact sheet or detailed package of new policy proposals, as in the past, an acknowledgment that the Republican-led Congress and the White House have few issues left on which they agree, especially in the heat of an election campaign.

Instead he will speak in broad terms Tuesday about America's potential and his vision of a nation that builds things, adapts to a changing environment and looks forward with hope, reprising some of the aspirational refrains that first helped him win the White House in 2008.

“America can do anything,” Obama said Saturday in a weekly radio address that aides described as a preview of his speech. “Even in times of great challenge and change, our future is entirely up to us.”

The upbeat, and to some extent self-congratulatory, tone serves as a marked contrast to the president's vast challenges and apparent frustration only weeks before the Iowa caucuses formally start the electoral race for his successor.

Obama's once-lofty job approval ratings appear stuck in negative territory, and the Dec. 2 shooting rampage in San Bernardino brought the threat of terrorism home again to many Americans.

He has struggled to explain his strategy to defeat Islamic State, which continues to lure new recruits — and inspire new violent attacks, including, authorities say, the shooting of a policeman Thursday night in Philadelphia — despite a U.S.-led military campaign against the extremist group in Iraq and Syria.

Unable to persuade Congress to tighten gun laws or to overhaul immigration laws, he has resorted to issuing executive orders and action that another president can quickly revoke with a stroke of the pen. Courts already have tied up some of his immigration programs.

Polling shows the country also is beset by economic unease in spite of a period of positive economic data. The number of people filing unemployment claims is near the lowest levels in four decades, and the jobless rate may fall below 5% for the first time since before the 2007 recession.

Yet a Fox News poll taken Jan. 4-7 found that 3 out of 4 voters view economic conditions in negative terms. Only 28% say they would describe the country as “strong and confident,” the argument Obama will seek to make on Tuesday.

The annual address to Congress gives the president an opportunity to try to reframe the national debate. With few new major initiatives to promote, Obama instead will try to rekindle some of the excitement that greeted his first run for the White House eight years ago.

Among the invited guests in the first lady's box in the House chamber Tuesday will be Edith Childs, the local official in South Carolina whose “Fired up! Ready to go!” chant became a staple of Obama's historic election.

Other guests will be more somber reminders of the gun violence that brought the president to tears in a speech on the subject last week. One seat will be left empty as a tribute to those killed.

“We want them to be seen and understood,” Obama said in a conference call Friday with members of Organizing for Action, which evolved from his former campaign operation. “Their absence means something to this country.”

In his prime-time speech, Obama is expected to again ask Congress to authorize military action against Islamic State. Lawmakers all but ignored a draft resolution he submitted last year to authorize force.

He may cite the Iran nuclear deal, his signature foreign policy achievement, since the Islamic Republic appears on track to remove or disable its primary nuclear infrastructure in coming weeks. Barring problems, the United Nations then may lift economic sanctions and allow the release of more than $50 billion in frozen assets to Iran.

On Saturday the White House launched a new interactive tool on the Web that lets users scan previous State of the Union addresses. Each of Obama's speeches is annotated to show ways in which the White House says the president delivered on the promises he made.

After the speech he will head to Omaha, and then to Baton Rouge, La. Aides say he will make the case that his initiatives, including healthcare reform and the economy, have helped millions of Americans; and he will suggest further reforms for the future.

“It's more about what the American people can do in the next phase of our country,” said a senior aide who requested anonymity to discuss the behind-the-scenes planning.

Republicans will turn to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to deliver the party's response to Obama's speech.

In the GOP weekly address Saturday, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota said that while Obama touts his accomplishments, “what we really need to hear about is how he will unleash the creativity and drive of the American people.” 

He said Obama’s record of what he called overregulation and foreign policy gambles, like the nuclear deal with Iran, have put America on the wrong course.

Follow @mikememoli and @cparsons for more White House coverage.

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