January 12, 2016 12:57 pm
Updated: February 9, 2016 4:51 pm

5 things to watch for during Obama’s last State of the Union address

WATCH: U.S. President Barack Obama will try to carve out his legacy, without wading too deep into the campaign for his successor, as he makes his final State of the Union address. As Jackson Proskow reports, Obama is expected to return to his original sales pitch to deliver his message.


President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address to the American people tonight. Here’s what to watch for, as he ends his two terms in office:

An unconventional message

Seven years after he became president, Obama doesn’t need to spend much of the night making promises about his remaining year in office. Instead, watch for him to tout his past accomplishments while delivering a hopeful message about the years beyond his.

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READ MORE: In final State of the Union, Obama aims to frame choice facing Americans in 2016 race

Addressing a jittery public

There’s still a sense among the American people that President Obama has failed to address the threat of Islamist extremism and domestic terrorism. Obama faces pressure to use the State of the Union to offer up a comprehensive plan to defeat the so-called Islamic State (Republicans have called on him to do exactly this).

The president may also look to break through to frustrated middle class voters who have turned their back on establishment politics. These are the very people who are now eyeing Donald Trump as a voice for their mainstream frustrations with everything from immigration to taxes. They’re not happy with Washington or Obama.

Election fodder

Obama’s upbeat tone won’t stop every single word from being prepared as a political missile, ready to be launched in the heat of the ongoing presidential campaign.

The president has to walk a fine line between selling his own legacy and teeing up the democratic nominee (i.e.: Hillary Clinton) for the campaign trail. Republicans, of course, will use the speech to rip apart the legacy of the two term democrat. For the GOP, what the president doesn’t say, will perhaps be as important as what he does.

READ MORE: Questions and answers about the U.S. president’s State of the Union address

The guest list

The pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union address is as much about symbolism as it is tradition. Every detail is closely scrutinized for even subtle political value.

Case in point: the guests invited to sit in the First Lady’s box, overlooking the joint session of congress.

As Obama ramps up his push for modest new gun controls, a single seat will be left vacant in the gallery to honour the victims of gun violence. Other guests include Refaai Hamo, a Syrian refugee who arrived in the U.S. this past December; Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, and Spencer Stone; the U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant who overpowered a gunman on a Paris-bound train in August, preventing a terrorist attack.

Not to be outdone, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has invited two members of an order of Roman Catholic nuns who are challenging President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

WATCH: Opposition preps to counter President Obama’s State of the Union

The designated survivor

For security and constitutional purposes, the State of the Union address is a nightmare because it puts the president, vice president, speaker, cabinet and Supreme Court justices in the same room at the same time.

If some sort of calamity were to strike Washington, D.C., and wipe out the entire presidential line of succession, someone would still need to be in charge.

Enter the designated survivor: a lone member of the United States cabinet who will watch the address from a remote, secure and secret location.

It’s not a glamorous job, but it is a real one.

Last year, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx had the honour of sitting out.

Don’t worry: if disaster did strike, the designated survivor is fully briefed on how to take over the presidency. They even travel with “the Football” — the briefcase that contains U.S. nuclear launch codes. If it all sounds stranger than fiction, it’s not. ABC is working on a new TV series called “Designated Survivor” based on this very premise.

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