Obama's State of Union to Rebut Republican Pessimism, Aide Says

  • Uplift, not laundry list, to be focus on final annual address
  • McDonough says president doesn't plan 2016 primary endorsement

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough (right) and Secretary of State John Kerry applaud President Barack Obama as he delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 28, 2014.


In his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will offer an upbeat vision of the U.S. to contrast with Republican presidential candidates who “continue to run down America,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said.

“We feel like we can win this future, we feel very optimistic about the future, that’s a big difference between us and what’s going on in this public debate right now and that’s what you’ll hear about on Tuesday,” McDonough said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” one of four Sunday morning television interviews previewing the speech.

The president and his aides have spent recent weeks promoting a State of the Union address that will focus on long-term themes and ideas, rather than a long list of policy proposals for the year ahead, Obama’s last in the Oval Office. Part of the goal, McDonough said, is to refocus the public discussion in a more uplifting direction.

The 23 guests invited to join first lady Michelle Obama to watch the speech signify much of the message the president hopes to deliver. They include a Syrian refugee, a former undocumented immigrant and a man who defended Muslims after his partner was killed during the San Bernardino, California, terror attack in December.

Symbolic Seat

One seat in the first lady’s box will be left empty to honor victims of gun violence, the White House said.

Donald Trump, front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has called for restricting Syrian refugees, banning Muslim immigrants and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. “Right now, the state of our union is a mess,” Trump said on “Meet the Press.”

McDonough said Trump’s pessimistic message was echoed across the Republican field.

While Obama’s previous addresses have included calls for Congress to enact legislation on raising the minimum wage, increasing infrastructure spending and ending certain corporate tax breaks, the president is opting for a broader approach as his tenure comes to an end.

Republican Agenda

Obama is expected to speak about his vision at a time when Republicans who control Congress have blocked most of his legislative proposals and are seeking to present an agenda of their own to the American people.

Republicans last week sent the president a partial repeal of Obamacare, his signature health-care bill, which he promptly vetoed. House Speaker Paul Ryan said it was the first of several “big ideas” that Congress would embrace this year in advance of November elections, to encourage voters to elect a Republican president.

“The country’s not headed in the right direction,” Ryan told reporters on Thursday. “So we as the alternative party owe the country an alternative. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Positive Payrolls

Following the monthly payrolls report on Jan. 8 that showed U.S. employers added a better-than-expected 292,000 positions in December, Obama will seek to paint an optimistic picture of the economy seven years after he took office during a crippling recession. In the days after the State of the Union speech, Obama plans to travel to Omaha, Nebraska, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to tout a falling unemployment rate and federal funding for early education.

Obama is also likely use the address to speak about his recent executive actions aimed at limiting gun sales to criminals and the mentally ill, McDonough said.

With the first 2016 nominating contests only weeks away, the president’s top aide said Obama would not endorse a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary, where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont are sparring over their records on guns.

The fight against Islamic State will also feature prominently in the speech, after December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino by a couple that was inspired by the terrorist group.

Taking on Terrorism

The White House on Friday announced a new counterterrorism task force that will attempt to thwart extremists and their use of social media. The announcement came as administration officials were meeting with executives from Twitter Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and other Silicon Valley firms to discuss options for combating the spread of extremism online and through encrypted technology.

Recent weapons tests by North Korea and Iran also present a challenge in Obama’s final year. McDonough said that sanctions targeting individuals and entities responsible for the tests would be issued “when it’s time.”

“We will issue those sanctions and those designations at the appropriate time,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”