For a gifted orator, President Obama has never delivered a breakout State of the Union speech. He looked to change that with his final shot Tuesday night.
The President opened his speech to Congress at 9 p.m.—likely to be his last on the floor of the House of Representatives—by saying he was going to give a non-traditional speech.
“Tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead,” he said. “But for my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to talk just about the next year. I want to focus on the next five years, ten years, and beyond.”
Obama also took some not-so-veiled swipes at the Republicans who want to replace him, chiefly bombastic frontrunner Donald Trump, who promises to “make American great again.”
“America has been through big changes before: wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights,” he said. “Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears.”
Aides were trying to bill Obama’s last turn on the dais as an upbeat speech and hardly a farewell address. Even as eyes turn to the 2016 election, the Obama Administration is still pushing an agenda that includes criminal justice reform—which has bipartisan support—and moves to reduce gun violence.
In a teaser video, Obama said he wants to talk about “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.”
Obama is set to return to that theme of the world America leaves to today’s children in excerpts the White House released ahead of the speech.
“The future we want—opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids—all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates,” Obama said. “It will only happen if we fix our politics.”
But the speech is potentially Obama’s last big speech of his Presidency. His predecessors have used State of the Union speeches to outline enduring policies and ideals. James Monroe used his 1823 State of the Union to describe a American foreign that continues to guide the United States. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 speech gave the country the ideas of Four Freedoms. Lyndon Johnson introduced the country to a War on Poverty in 1964 and George W. Bush used his 2002 visit to Congress gave the world its Axis of Evil.
For his part, Obama’s speeches before Congress have often fallen flat. The man who rose to national prominence on the promise of his 2004 speech at the Democratic convention in Boston is looking for one last chance at redemption.
In a tweet sent from his political account before the speech, he quoted a song from the musical “Hamilton” about Alexander Hamilton drafting George Washington’s farewell address.