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What to expect from Obama’s final State of the Union address

President Obama will offer his final State of the Union address, setting the tone for his last year in office. What kind of meaningful action could the outgoing leader get done with his time left? Political director Lisa Desjardins takes a look, while Judy Woodruff previews the speech with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tonight marks another milestone for President Obama. In a few hours, he will deliver the State of the Union address that will set the tone for his final year in office.

    NewsHour political director Lisa Desjardins has been looking at what he can do in his remaining months in office.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    President Obama wasted no time kicking off his 2016, just five days into the new year, with a highly publicized announcement that he’s going it alone on certain gun control measures.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    There are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence and save more lives, actions that protect our rights and our kids.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    The president is well aware his days in office are numbered, 374, to be exact. And so are the items he can tackle in that time. What kind of meaningful action could the outgoing leader get done? That depends who you ask.

  • JOHN FEEHERY, Republican Strategist:

    You look at the president’s biggest accomplishments, they all happened in the first two years of his presidency. And he’s been trying to protect that legacy ever since.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That’s John Feehery, GOP strategist and former spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

  • JOHN FEEHERY:

    I think the president is really kind of finished on the legacy front. His relevance is diminishing every day somewhat dramatically, because he’s a lame-duck.

  • STEPHANIE CUTTER, Former Obama Deputy Campaign Manager:

    I don’t think he’s considering himself a lame-duck and still has a lot to get done.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And that’s Stephanie Cutter. She’s a Democratic consultant and a former adviser to President Obama.

  • STEPHANIE CUTTER:

    There’s lots of talk about this being an election year, and nothing’s going to get through Congress. That’s probably true, with some minor exceptions on trade and maybe criminal justice reform. But if there’s any president equipped to handle this type of situation and still find ways to make progress, it’s President Obama.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    With voters preoccupied with who will be next the in the Oval Office, the last year of a president’s term usually isn’t the time for major legacy milestones. For some presidents, it was enough time to do some things, like create national monuments, like Teddy Roosevelt did with the Grand Canyon in 1908, or issue controversial presidential pardons, like Bill Clinton on his last day in office, or, in a crisis:

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:

    We’re in the midst of a serious financial crisis, and the federal government is responding with decisive action.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Push major measures, like the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP, the $700 billion package that some called the bank bailout.

    But like outgoing President Bush, President Obama faces a Congress run by strong opposition.

  • MAN:

    This is a 15-minute vote.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    The Republican-led House started its 2016 by passing a repeal of Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, sending it to Obama’s desk to force a veto.

  • REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), Speaker of the House:

    This is the closest that we have come to repealing Obamacare. And now we are sending that repeal to the president’s desk.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    It is a kind of last yearlong duel between the GOP and Democratic president. As a result, expect Obama to use his only solo weapon, his executive authority, to try and cement his work on things like the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill and climate change.

  • Again, Feehery:

  • JOHN FEEHERY:

    He’s going to be pushing for Dodd-Frank regulations, which is going to put more constraints on banks and make it more difficult for banks to lend. He’s going to really be pushing on EPA. And he had this big agreement on environmental protection and climate change, and I think he’s going to continue to try through the regulatory front to really limit the emissions on things like coal.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Cutter sees foreign policy as another of Obama’s final year legacy agenda items. She points to Obama’s decision to reestablish ties with Cuba, including reopening the U.S. Embassy there.

  • STEPHANIE CUTTER:

    Cuba is a significant piece of this president’s legacy. I think the president, over the course of the next year, including potentially even visiting Cuba, will find ways to make sure that those doors stay open.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Polls show more Americans disapprove of Obama’s performance than approve. And while he’s ahead of his predecessor’s numbers at this point in his second term, Obama trails the same approval ratings for Clinton and Reagan.

  • Going into his final year, Obama’s message to the country and for his own legacy is his familiar theme:

    hope.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    If we make some good choices now, whoever the next president is, whoever is controlling the next Congress, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t own the 21st century.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And the president has a lot to do in this speech tonight, but Democrats here tell me he’s hoping to do it in a shorter time than usual, perhaps 50 minutes, less than the hour or so it took last year — Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Lisa, you have been talking to members up on the Hill. What are Democrats saying they expect to hear from the president tonight?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Democrats, Judy — it’s interesting — are saying this is an entirely different kind of State of the Union address. They say it will not be a wish list of items, not a whole bunch of policy agenda proposals, but instead a sweeping vision.

    That’s the kind of language they’re using. They say that this is something that is forward-looking, which is different, of course, for a president who on his way out. Usually, those presidents try and recap their time in office.

    All of that aside, there is something Democrats really want and need from this speech. They need this president to try and talk up what he’s done. And they’re focusing on the economy. They’re hoping that, as 2016 and many of the members here are facing reelection, comes up, they want the president to tout what they say is a strong performance in the economy under his tenure.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we heard Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, a few minutes ago saying that he wants to hear what the president has to say about fighting terrorism, but you have been talking to other Republicans. What are they telling you they look for?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Right.

    Republicans say two things. Some strategists that I talked to outside of this building told me that they think there could be a chance that, as the president speaks to his vision, something Democrats want, Republicans are fine with that too, because they think his vision helps them.

    They’re actually — one person told me tonight, Judy, that they think there might be some clips from tonight’s speech that they can run in ads showing that they think this big government vision, as they see it, was a failure and is a failure.

    Now, on the other hand, when you talk the Republicans in this building, they’re also playing the forward-looking game. They’re saying they want to talk about their own vision. They say that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is not going to give a reaction speech in the Republican response tonight. She also, they say, going nontraditional, and will instead present a Republican vision for the future, the Republican agenda.

    But there’s a lot of competing vision optics here as well, Judy. Democrats told me that several of their members, as many as 20, are bringing Muslim Americans as their guests. Now, that’s not about President Obama’s agenda. That’s clearly about the 2016 campaign, which I think will be woven through this speech.

    One last note, Judy. I have talked to a lot of people about this speech tonight, but I have to say the most insightful might have been my Uber driver on the way here, a man named Earl Wiggins (ph), an Obama fan, he said. He said he wants to hear the president really speak from the heart. He’s not sure about the president himself. He says the president has to be genuine and really speak to what he means.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Ah, the wisdom of real people.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That’s right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Just very quickly, Lisa, you have been covering Congress for a while. Does it feel different that this is the last State of the Union?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    I’m going to be honest, Judy. It doesn’t feel all that different.

    To me, this feels a little bit like a classic State of the Union. I think there’s been a bigger change that could be expressed in this speech tonight. I think what is different in Congress at this moment that I feel is that now it is about competing agendas. It’s not as much about the competing politics that we have seen.

    And I think that’s being expressed tonight, as the president tries to express a bigger vision that they say is beyond politics. Republicans are trying to do the same. But what’s ironic there is, of course, that’s kind of politics, too.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Lisa Desjardins, reporting for us from the Capitol, and we will be talking to you later tonight. Thanks.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    You got it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Reports have it that President Obama, White House speechwriters and his staff have spent today tweaking the State of the Union address.

    A short time ago, I spoke with the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough.

    Denis McDonough, welcome.

    So, we’re hearing this is going to be a different sort of State of the Union. What does that mean?

  • DENIS MCDONOUGH, White House Chief of Staff:

    Judy, thanks for the chance to be with you.

    Well, the president — you won’t hear tonight what is a traditional list of policy proposals, but, rather, you will hear the president talk through the kind of challenges that we will be facing not only in the year ahead, but really the decade ahead.

    And he wants to make sure that the institutions of Washington are focused on those, and are rolling up our sleeves to get ready to deal with a changing economy where everybody needs to have a shot at opportunity in this economy, talking about using all the elements of our national power to protect the country and expand our influence, making sure that we use technology to advance our interests, not use that — not have that technology used against us, and then, of course, talking about how he thinks our politics could be done much better than they have been.

    And he will make sure that our politics reflect the greatness of this country.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, not putting forward a list of proposals, some are interpreting that to mean he doesn’t think he can get much done this year, especially with Congress.

  • DENIS MCDONOUGH:

    Yes, well, look, a lot of people said that to us a year ago. And over the course of the last year, we got a deal with Cuba to open up and establish diplomatic relations.

    We got a budget deal, a tax deal. We got TPA, which is a trade negotiating authority. And then we were able to get the largest trade agreement in the history of trade agreements last year. And then, of course, we got the climate deal in Paris at the end of the year, on top of the budget and on top of all sorts of reforms and export financing and other things.

    So, we will let the record speak for itself. This president has been, obviously, leading policy debates for some time and pushing the quickest recovery in terms of job growth over the last two years since back in the 1990s and the quickest reduction in the unemployment rate since well over three decades ago.

    So, not only do we have ideas. We’re implementing them. You will hear more about that over the course of the year.

    But, tonight, you will hear about our challenges, how we’re going to confront them, how we’re going to draw on the strength of all the American people to confront them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You mentioned politics. The Republican candidates are out there painting a pretty negative picture of the State of the Union. It sounds like you’re saying the president wants to counter that.

  • DENIS MCDONOUGH:

    Well, I think the president wants to be factual.

    And I think what he sees is an American people who are — when they’re working together and focused on the opportunities, the sky’s the limit for this country. And I do find myself — and I think the speech tonight will lay this out a little bit — puzzled, perplexed by the fact that these guys — guys primarily — want to just talk down the economy, talk down the United States.

    That’s not consistent with either the situation we find ourselves in today or the history of this great country. So we will continue to press that case, and you will hear it tonight.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, given the fact, Denis McDonough, that two-thirds of the American people, give or take, are telling pollsters they think the country is off on the wrong track, what is the president going to say to change their mind? What is he going to say the state of the union is?

  • DENIS MCDONOUGH:

    Look, I think there’s no doubt that people coming — what we came out of, that great recession, the deepest rescission since the Great Depression that started in 2007-2008, where people saw the values of their homes wiped out, people saw their retirements, all the indicators of stability for their families really took a dramatic hit.

    So, I don’t doubt that people feel uneasy, and they have every right to feel uneasy. Our role, as the leaders in this country, is to make sure that we’re making opportunities for all the American people, that they have the training, the opportunities for growth, the new jobs that we have been talking about. And that’s what we are going to talk about tonight.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Is there worry at the White House, finally, Denis McDonough, that what the president wants to do this year could get completely overwhelmed by, frankly, the 2016 presidential race?

  • DENIS MCDONOUGH:

    We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the politics or the races.

    What we spend a lot of time worrying about is that this country is ready for this changing and dynamic economy, so people have opportunities, that we are focused on the threats to this country, that we’re focused on the new opportunities, particularly the clean energy.

    So, that’s what we will focus on. What happens on the campaign trail is not something we can control, and we’re not even going to try. We have a story to tell. We have a country to lead, and this is a great country. And we’re blessed to have the opportunity to do it. That’s what we’re going to do for the next year.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • DENIS MCDONOUGH:

    Thank you, Judy.

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