Obama's 'non-traditional' swansong speech

The White House says Obama's final State of the Union address will break from convention, so what can we expect?


    New York, United States - US President Barack Obama will deliver his last State of the Union address on Tuesday night, a speech about the progress made during his seven years in office and what to expect from his final lap and during the handover to his presidential successor.

    The annual report to Congress is a set piece on Washington's political calendar in which presidents typically lay out legislative plans. However, with a general election looming, Obama will likely focus on his legacy and try to pave the way for a Democrat to replace him.

    While he talks about the road ahead, campaigners are pressing the president to fulfil long-standing goals, such as making life better for black Americans, closing the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, and stabilising the fractious Middle East.

    Explainer: Why Obama has not closed Guantanamo

    In a videoabout the upcoming speech, Obama, perched on his desk in the Oval Office, spoke casually about the US' economic rebound and how he felt "more optimistic" about 2016 than at any other time in his presidency.

    Presidential hopefulls Hillary Clinton (Right) and Bernie Sanders could benefit from an upbeat State of Union report by Obama [Jim Young/Reuters]

    He will cover "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," he said.

    It comes three weeks before voters in the state of Iowa choose their favourites for the presidential race. Democratic wannabes include Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the Republican field is wide open and features the bullish property tycoon Donald Trump.

    Obama's approval ratings have been stuck in the mid-40s for months. An upbeat State of the Union report could boost his standing, cement his legacy and help Democrats keep the White House.

    That will be a struggle, with such right-wing populists as Trump declaring: "Right now, the state of our union is a mess."

    Analysts are speculating about what "big things" Obama will mention at the start of his final year, during which he will struggle to avoid becoming a 'lame duck' president who is rendered impotent by a Republican-dominated Congress.

    He is widely seen as having two chances to break through the US' political gridlock - there may be cross-party support for approving his big Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and on reforming the criminal justice system.

    Who will attend the State of the Union? 

    Pundits are drawn to first lady Michelle Obama's guest list, which typically reflects the president's political agenda. This year's line-up nods towards Obama's expansion of healthcare, gay marriage, clean energy, Latino immigrants and homeless veterans.

    It also features a vacant chair to mark the victims of gun violence.

    After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, and other bloodbaths, Obama issued an executive order this month to expand federal background checks for online and gun show sales, as well as to beef up the enforcement of firearm regulation.

    Other guests include reformers of the justice system, which Obama criticises for costing $80bn a year and seeing inmate numbers growfrom 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million now, often blacks and Latinos for nonviolent drug offences.

    Black protesters rally in December 2015. After a series of incidents of police brutality against African Americans, many blacks wonder if their situation has improved at all during Obama's seven-year presidency [Shawn Thew/EPA]

    Are African Americans better off under Obama?

    Khury Petersen-Smith, from the Black Lives Matter campaign, said it was time Obama came good on pledges to make life better for ordinary black people, who often get a raw deal from police, prosecutors and judges.

    "For a long time in the civil rights movement, we said we needed a black face in a high place," Petersen-Smith told Al Jazeera.

    "Now we've had seven years of Obama, and we have to ask whether black people are better off. The answer has got to be no. Very little from Obama's stay in the White House has advanced the lives of black people in a positive and progressive way.

    "We need more than rhetoric. We need to see actual change."

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    Syrian refugees and the Iran nuclear deal

    Syrian refugee Refaai Hamo, 55, has also been invited to Washington. He carved out a new life for himself in Michigan after losing his wife among seven members of his family when a Syrian government missile destroyed his home.

    His inclusion fits into a political row over the president's decision to let 10,000 Syrian refugees into the US by October, despite right-wing sceptics who say Syrian arrivals and perhaps even all Muslims could be dangerous extremists.

    Obama may follow a pattern of previous presidents who, faced with gridlock at home, look overseas in their final year. He has already struck a nuclear deal with Iran, repaired relations with Cuba and negotiated the TPP trade agreement.

    Karim Sadjadpour, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank, said the deal trading sanctions relief for curbs on Iran's nuclear work is a "crowning achievement" that some Republicans have vowed to nix if they take the White House in 2017.

    OPINION: Iran and the deal that cuts both ways

    "What's paramount for Obama is to protect the Iran deal," Sadjadpour told Al Jazeera.

    "The administration is going to do everything it can to de-escalate tensions with Iran, to downplay Iran's provocations, and to try to do everything they can to refrain from … sanctioning Iran and doing anything could lead to the unravelling of the nuclear deal."

    Obama and the Middle East

    Obama has overseen the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and Iraq and sought to extricate the US from an often-chaotic Middle East while pivoting towards Asia and countering China's growing economic might.

    At the rostrum, he is likely to reiterate his strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, which is running swaths of Iraq and Syria and remains dangerous despite recent setbacks in Ramadi, Iraq, added Sadjadpour.

    The US-led military effort against ISIL is only one front in Syria's brutal civil war, which has drawn in world powers and claimed more than 250,000 lives and is complicated by the competing interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

    To hand over a more stable Middle East to his successor, Obama must address tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, part of a rift between Sunni and Shia states that was exacerbated this month when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia leader.

    OPINION: Saudi Arabia and Iran and how we got here

    "One of Obama's visions for this region, at least in the Gulf, is equilibrium," Frederic Wehrey, the author of A New US Approach to Gulf Security, told Al Jazeera.

    "If these two powers on each side of the Gulf were to reach some rapprochement and get along, that would facilitate the withdrawal of US forces towards Asia. Of course, that ambition of equilibrium has been shattered. I think Obama will try to salvage this."

    Closing Guantanamo 

    During his first days in the White House in 2009, Obama signed an order to shutter the controversial detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, where George W Bush's administration caged, tortured and interrogated captives from its so-called 'war on terror'.

    On Monday, Pentagon officials announced the repatriation of Muhammed Abd Al Rahman Awn Al-Shamrani to Saudi Arabia, amid a wave of releases from the naval base that leaves the prison population at 103. It has held about 780 men.

    Al Jazeera's Sami al-Hajj: Remembering Guantanamo

    Shane Kadidal, a lawyer and Guantanamo specialist at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal charity, urged Obama to live up to his promise of closing the jail and ending the dubious process of caging suspects rather than giving them a day in court.

    "Obama's plan for closing Guantanamo is no mystery. It involves transferring the men who have been cleared, moving others to the US for trial or continued indefinite detention, closing the prison in Cuba and declaring mission accomplished," Kadidal told Al Jazeera.

    "Even then, such a closure will be meaningless if the system of detention without charge can go on indefinitely. As long as that remains his plan, no amount of frantic manoeuvring this year will allow him to truly accomplish what he promised at the start of his presidency."

    Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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