Obama will hearken back to the tone of his 2008 presidential campaign, recalling the hope-and-change message that powered his historic election while asking Americans to help him finish what he started eight years ago.
Obama plans to talk about America as a place of limitless possibility and about the country’s natural inclination to innovate, adapt to a changing environment and dream big, say senior aides who have been helping him put the speech together.
There will be specific policies mentioned, advisors say, but they’ll appear as illustrations in an aspirational description of what he believes America can be. He’ll touch on other values in a symbolic way, for example leaving one seat open in the balcony box with First Lady Michelle Obama, their joint tribute to the victims of gun violence.
Also in a seat of honor will be Ryan Reyes, the surviving partner of San Bernardino shooting victim Daniel Kaufman, whom the White House points to as an important voice for religious and cultural tolerance.
A call to action on domestic policy
Though the White House doesn’t plan to issue the usual voluminous explainer for its policy proposals, Obama will mention several areas where he plans to take action -- and wants Congress to join him.
Obama intends to work on expanding Medicaid, reforming the criminal justice system, bolstering trade relations, curbing gun violence and staking out new territory in the fight against climate change.
Some of those things he can do alone with his executive powers, working with state and local officials. But he still believes that the biggest strides can come only through federal legislative action, and will renew his call for bipartisan cooperation despite considerable political crosswinds.
The fight against Islamic State militants and the drive to resolve the civil war in Syria are always at the top of every White House list of global priorities, though the Obama team is usually quick to list other things the president is working on.
In the final year of his watch, the commander in chief plans to keep a close eye on Iran’s adherence to the nuclear agreement and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. He wants to close the controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He will keep pushing the Cuban regime to respect the human rights and freedom of its people and foster relations with China and the rest of Asia, where he sees the greatest potential for economic and diplomatic growth in the coming years.
The U.S. commitment to a multilateral approach to the rest of the world is a crucial part of his legacy and Obama wants to make a case for staying on this path beyond his presidency.
“Working with others makes us safer and stronger than going it alone,” said one senior advisor, requesting anonymity to discuss the president’s recent discussions with the staff.
The 2016 presidential campaign
One crucial move to preserve his legacy, Obama believes, is making sure a Democrat succeeds him in the Oval Office.
On Tuesday, the spotlight of the State of the Union address gives him the opportunity to model the message he hopes the party nominee and other Democrats will broadcast over the coming year – an upbeat, hopeful one about how strong and prosperous America can be in the 21st century if the country lives up to its potential.
He won’t specifically criticize billionaire Donald Trump or any other Republican presidential candidates, but several people who have been over his speech say it is notable for its contrasting tone; where Trump says he wants to “make America great again,” Obama will talk about making it even better than it already is.
And Obama won’t just trumpet that message on Tuesday. He’ll take his message on the road and augment it on social media, starting with a YouTube question-and-answer session immediately after his speech.
Agreeing to disagree
Obama lately has been telling his team that he wants to engage more with people who disagree with him, and aides say Tuesday night’s address will reflect his intent to deepen those conversations in the year to come.
As he takes to the road on Wednesday and Thursday, Obama will resume the “living room meetings” of his 2007 and 2008 campaign. His schedule in the coming weeks will include more public and private opportunities for people to hash out their beefs.
Advisors say that by advancing his policy priorities, Obama sees his greatest tool as the one that brought about his presidency in the first place – an ability to win over the American public.
For news about President Obama and the Obama administration, follow me on Twitter: @cparsons