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Obama’s Last SOTU

This is one of Obama's last opportunities to define how he wants his presidency to be remembered.
president barack obama united nations general assembly

Tonight President Obama will deliver his last State of the Union address at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Since this will be the last one of these speeches that he gives, Obama will presumably spend a fair amount of time talking about what he considers his legacy accomplishments. This is one of Obama’s last opportunities to define how he wants his presidency to be remembered, and I suspect that will take precedence over trying to outline an agenda for the coming year.

Obama will likely tout the nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, and the recent climate agreement in Paris as examples of the foreign policy successes of his second term. Much of the rest of his foreign policy record is nothing to brag about, and so I assume he will have little or nothing to say about other issues. I expect that the war on ISIS will receive only a very brief mention, I don’t think Obama will call on members of Congress to pass an AUMF (since he doesn’t think he needs one anyway), and I doubt that the war in Afghanistan will receive more than a sentence or two. Obama may also mention engagement with Myanmar as a success, but then again he might not want to bring it up in light of the government’s appalling treatment of the Rohingya there.

As we are entering an election year, there is even less of a chance than usual that Congress will produce any significant legislation, and Obama probably isn’t going to call on them to pass any major domestic bills that he knows they won’t bring up for a vote. The TPP is one thing that Congress might act on, and it is one of the few things that Obama and the Republican majorities agree on, so that might be the exception. Because it is an election year, Obama’s final SOTU will probably include more than a few parting shots at the GOP and their field of presidential candidates. The White House has already said that one of the themes of the speech will be to counter the candidates’ “gloom and doom” rhetoric, so we should expect to hear a lot of celebratory talk about recent jobs and growth numbers and an emphasis on how secure the U.S. actually is despite various conflicts elsewhere in the world.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has been given the unenviable, thankless task of giving the official Republican response this year. If Obama intends to put a positive spin on the events of the last year, Haley will almost certainly try to do the opposite and put the administration’s record in the worst possible light. That means that her response will likely be full of denunciations of Obama for various disasters he’s supposedly caused without providing many specifics. Haley is already being touted as a possible VP candidate, but almost no one assigned the job of responding to a SOTU is in better shape politically after the response. Unless Haley gives an unusually memorable or effective response (which almost never happens), it isn’t going to boost her standing in the party and is more likely to diminish it.

P.S. I’ll be commenting on the speech and the response on Twitter (@DanielLarison) this evening.



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