President to staff as they prepare the address: "Don't take our foot off the gas"
Obama will seek to reassure Americans once again about their safety in wake of Paris and San Bernardino attacks
As White House officials began preparing for President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union speech, they dug up past “eighth-year” speeches and found something in common – nearly all of them looked back.
It was tempting for the President to follow the lead of his predecessors, take a victory lap and mainly tout his administration’s achievements. But Obama’s instruction to his team was simple: Don’t do that.
“Don’t take our foot off the gas,” the President told a group of West Wing aides and speechwriters preparing drafts of the speech, according to a senior White House official who attended meeting.
As his top aides have described it, Obama has chosen to deliver a “nontraditional” State of the Union.
Gone is the laundry list of policy proposals funneled into the White House from agencies across the federal government. No more “MyRA’s,” one official quipped, pointing to the previous idea for a new government savings account that was inserted into a past State of the Union.
“It’s not going to be ‘check the box,’ ” explained one senior White House official, insisting that the annual retrieval of recommendations from Cabinet members will not be shoehorned into the speech.
Obama previewed his plan to talk about his vision for the future in a video teaser tweeted by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
“The big things that will guarantee an even stronger, better, more prosperous America for our kids. The America we believe in,” Obama said in the video.
Vision for U.S. leadership around the world
One of those “big things” will be the President’s vision for U.S. leadership in the world in the post-Obama years.
A senior White House official said Obama will urge the nation to follow his preferred foreign policy approach of diplomacy and multilateralism. To illustrate that call, the President is likely to tout the administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak, the climate change agreement in Paris and his decision to normalize relations with Cuba.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Obama will also seek to reassure Americans once again about their safety. Senior administration officials said Obama plans to devote part of the speech to his vow to protect the American home front and put the nation on a path to destroying ISIS, a mission aides concede likely won’t be accomplished on his watch.
The war on ISIS “will be the overarching focus of everything we do this year,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters earlier this year.
Still, Obama will dedicate much of the speech to his late second-term agenda. In the coming weeks, the President is expected to deliver a plan to Congress for closing the terror detention center at Guantanamo. Obama will likely threaten to act on his own to shut down the facility if lawmakers balk at the proposal.
In what will be an emotional high point in the speech, the President will also defend his executive actions aimed at tightening the nation’s background check system for gun buyers. Obama will then point to the first lady’s box at the address where an empty seat will represent the victims of gun violence.
Still, a nod to the past
Given that this is Obama’s final State of the Union, aides believe the President will still take a few moments to look back on his two terms in office, especially its tumultuous beginning.
Obama was sworn into office as the nation was on the verge of slipping into a second Great Depression, his aides often remind reporters.
The President has already begun to recall his administration’s handling of the financial crisis, pointing to the recovery of the U.S. auto industry in his weekly address to the nation on Saturday.
There will also be a heavy dose of nostalgia in Obama’s speech. Inside the West Wing, top officials who are veterans of the President’s first campaign for the White House can hardly believe Obama’s time in office is almost up.
In a nod to those one-time campaign aides who made the transition to the administration and the scores of volunteers during both election cycles, Obama will point to Edith Childs, who will be sitting in the first lady’s box during the speech.
Childs, a county council member in Greenwood, South Carolina, coined the popular chant, “Fired up! Ready to go!” at one of Obama’s rallies in 2007. Then-Sen. Obama was so struck by the cheer it was adopted as an unofficial campaign slogan for the rest of his White House run.
“This is going to be an incredibly emotional moment,” said Van Jones, a leading environmental official in Obama’s first administration and now a CNN political contributor.
“You think about speech after speech, and this is the last one. This is the last State of the Union. And there’s no deceleration in this guy. There’s no deceleration. This is the guy that we voted for,” Jones added.
Despite that rich election lore waiting to be tapped, the President won’t spend too much time reliving his election glory years, aides insist.
Top officials describe the graying but still youthful 54-year-old President as almost restless, eager to squeeze every moment he can from his remaining year in office.
“The question is what are the kinds of decisions that we are going to make right now that are going to ensure that we’re going to pass on our to kids and their kids the most prosperous, the most secure, the most fair United States that has ever existed,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has also signaled an ambitious agenda for 2016, joked that Obama should spend his final State of the Union apologizing for his past policies.
” ‘I take it all back – that health care was wrong, we shouldn’t have done Dodd-Frank, I want to actually lower tax rates, clear out crony capitalism and restore the Constitution to its rightful place in American life.’ That’s what I would encourage him to say,” quipped Ryan.