State of the union: Obama to swing for the fences in last year

In his final state of the union address tonight, U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to tell Americans "we still have some unfinished business" in this, his last year in office.

Obama set to deliver final state of the union address tonight

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to go beyond the typical laundry list of micro-promises in his final state of the union address tonight. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Watch U.S. President Barack Obama deliver his final state of the union address tonight at 9 p.m. ET on and CBC News Network.

In preparing the ground for his last state of the union address tonight, U.S. President Barack Obama has hinted that he plans to go beyond the typical laundry list of micro-promises and pledges, and to instead focus more on the big-picture challenges that are still ahead.

It's "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," Obama said in a video posted on the government's website, previewing his address. "The big things that will guarantee an even stronger, better, more prosperous America for our kids."

Of course what must also be weighing on his mind, in this last year of his administration, is the legacy that he will leave as much as what he feels he still needs to accomplish.

"There's a sensitivity, which happens in many presidential terms, that 'Oh my goodness, we still have so much work to do and we're a little bit worried about the historians,'" says Gil Troy, a McGill University history professor and author of the new book The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

"'And we have to make sure to check off enough things on our to-do list and to really show what we've accomplished.'"

Defied 'lame-duck' predictions?

Some could argue that Obama has already defied critics and political observers who predicted a while back that his remaining time as president would mostly be as a lame duck.

Instead, since the 2014 midterms that saw the Republicans take control of both houses of Congress, Obama has signed a nuclear deal with Iran, begun to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, signed a global climate deal in Paris, negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, and rejected the Keystone XL pipeline project from Canada.

He also has signed executive orders dealing with illegal immigration and, most recently, gun control. Though how these will fare in the teeth of a Republican Congress remain to be seen.

Still, in his end-of-year news conference, Obama said  that "since taking this office, I've never been more optimistic about a year ahead than I am right now.  And in 2016, I'm going to leave it out all on the field."

Last years of past presidents

If he does pull something important off, it wouldn't be a first.

In their final year in office, recent presidents have been able to rack up some significant achievements.

Ronald Reagan got the Senate to sign off on his historic Intermediate-Range And Shorter-Range Missiles treaty with the then Soviet Union. Bill Clinton signed a landmark trade deal with China, used executive orders to protect wildlife lands and launched the NATO-led aerial bombardment of Kosovo.  

And, following the financial crash of 2008, George W. Bush signed the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to help U.S. financial institutions stay afloat.

Whether any of Obama's measures will match the significance of his predecessors is unclear. Despite his best intentions, there may be only so much that the president can do. 

Obama is sure to continue to press for criminal justice reform, which includes overhauling sentencing laws and reducing mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders — reforms that actually have some bipartisan support in Congress. 

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said those reforms and the TPP  trade agreement  "are just two examples of some high-priority items the president is hopeful the Congress can act on before the end of the year."

Obama will also likely want to continue to focus on the issue of gun control, having recently attempted executive actions to stiffen up enforcement.

And climate change will continue to be a top priority, so we can probably expect the president to unveil new environmental rules while also defending his new regulations, currently the subject of state and private lawsuits, to mandate steeper greenhouse gas cuts from power plants.

"I think he wants to use executive power to make more change on climate change," says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University."I think clearly that's where a lot of his attention has been focused."

As for foreign policy and the nuclear deal with Iran —  a deal which had come under more scrutiny following Tehran's launch of a ballistic missile test — Zelizer said "I think he wants to make sure the deal doesn't come undone."

There has also been talk about Obama finally closing Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, and dispersing its current hard-core inmates, one of his signature promises before becoming president.

"I think he wants to do it. I don't think he'll be able to. Not sure he will try," said Zelizer.

Part of Obama's legacy will be whether a Democrat, like Hillary Clinton, follows him into the White House. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

"Post Paris [attacks], it's very hard politically. The moment he could have done it was right when he become president. Even then it proved to be politically difficult, and that is the exact kind of issue that will cause huge problems for Hillary Clinton. 

And getting Clinton —  assuming she is the Democrats presidential nominee — elected president may be his most pressing issue.

"At the end of the day, I think Obama understands that one of the biggest metrics for assessing whether his legacy goes down as a success or failure is whether a Democrat is elected," Troy said.

"That makes the politics interesting and it inhibits him a little bit," he said. "We're going to continue to see a little bit of what I call stealth presidency, where he's just a little bit under the radar where he pushes but knows that he is somewhat inhibited" from going all-out.

With files from The Associated Press


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