WASHINGTON, D.C. — The White House says President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night will be non-traditional.
What that means: Obama will be talking about himself, not asking Congress for a long list of items he knows he’ll never get.
Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address a week after bypassing Congress by using his executive authority to expand gun rules. He could use the speech to highlight other issues on his agenda that he’ll address without the help of Congress, like Guantanamo Bay, echoing previous executive actions on everything from immigration, carbon dioxide emissions and re-starting diplomatic relationship with Cuba.
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough signaled that Obama will pit the American people, watching on television, against Congress, his in-person audience, and its members’ donors.
“You’ll hear him talk about every American having a shot in this changing economy. You’ll hear him talk about using all the elements of our national power to protect and grow the influence of this country,” McDonough said. “And importantly, Jake, you’ll hear the president talk about making sure that every American has a chance to influence this democracy. Not the select few, not the millionaires and the billionaires, but every American.”
In other words, Obama — once the candidate of hope and change — is selling the prospect of incremental change now, as part of the vast progress that could come if only voters will elect like-minded Democrats once he leaves office.
The rest of the president’s power moves are likely to come in the form of the executive actions he has unspooled in rapid succession since 2014’s midterms.
The speech is likely to be a combination of a valedictorian’s look-how-far-we’ve-come rhetoric and calls to action directed not at Congress but at the voting public on issues near to Obama’s heart — and extending beyond his increasingly-limited time in office.
“What I want to focus on in this State of the Union address,” Obama said in a video preview the White House released Wednesday, is “not just the remarkable progress we’ve made, not just what I want to get done in the year ahead, but what we all need to do together in the years to come — the big things that will guarantee an even stronger, better, more prosperous America for our kids. The America we believe in. That’s what’s on my mind.”
One area Obama could focus on is his push to close the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — a priority of Obama’s since the days of his first campaign.
Obama’s former White House counsel, Gregory Craig, and his Guantanamo Bay special envoy, Cliff Sloan, laid some groundwork for the facility’s closure in a Washington Post op-ed two months ago. The two argued that, despite the obstacles Congress has thrown in his way, Obama still has the legal authority to transfer prisoners from Gitmo.
“If Congress is unable or unwilling to work with him, Obama should use his exclusive authority as commander in chief to move the limited number of detainees who cannot be transferred to foreign countries to secure institutions in the United States, shutter this notorious facility, and end this blight on American values and national security,” the two wrote.
Obama could tackle climate change issues big and small — as in, as small as new energy efficiency standards for household items — as well as food labeling changes long sought by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Obama will make a pitch for the executive actions he is taking to expand background checks in gun purchases.
Those moves have come alongside a warning aimed mostly at Democrats that Obama will oppose any candidate who doesn’t support gun control measures.
“The president is saying that across the board he’s going to be a single issue voter on this. He thinks that makes sense, given the enormity of the challenge,” McDonough said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Several of Michelle Obama’s guests at the speech are a nod to the issue, including gun control supporter Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Ryan Reyes, whose partner Larry “Daniel” Kaufman died in the mass shooting in San Bernardino last month. There will also be an empty seat to symbolize the victims of gun violence.
It’s one of the most divisive issues of the speech, with Democrats and Republicans far apart on how to tackle guns. Democrats have advocated for more funding for mental health and law enforcement agencies tasked with conducting background checks, while the GOP has said those moves infringe on Second Amendment gun rights.
Going around Congress
Obama’s last State of the Union speech comes against the backdrop of a Republican-controlled Congress — and a presidential campaign in which the two parties’ argument is over whether to protect everything Obama has done or scrap it all.
Three of the GOP candidates — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — might even be in the audience.
Obama didn’t talk much about Congress on Thursday night during a live, televised town hall focused on gun control. But he did flash anger at Capitol Hill — underscoring his belief that he can’t get much done by cooperating with Republicans.
“The way we break the deadlock on this issue is when Congress does not have just a stranglehold on this debate — or, excuse me, the NRA does not have a stranglehold on Congress in this debate,” he said.
Once the speech is over, Obama will travel to Omaha, Nebraska and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to take his pitch on the road.
On many items, he’ll need to act soon, though, rather than waiting until his final days in office — after the election, once the hyper-political noise has dulled — to flex his executive muscles.
Congress has a 60-legislative-day window to reject regulations before their implementation. Obama can veto Congress’ decision and implement new rules anyway — but only if he’s still in the Oval Office.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest alluded to Obama using more executive orders throughout 2016 during an early-January press briefing.
“I would certainly anticipate that over the course of this year and the president’s remaining 12 months or so in office, the president is going to use every element of his authority that he can within the confines of the law to make the country safer, to advance the interests of the middle-class and to advance the interests of the United States around the world,” Earnest said.