Obama reaches for upbeat outlook in final State of the Union

President Obama
President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

President Barack Obama will deliver a final State of the Union address Tuesday brimming with optimism — far more than most Americans possess.

After six years of pitching ambitious proposals in his annual speech to Congress, Obama plans to take a rhetorical step back this year as he opens the final stretch of his presidency, in which he has less control over the nation's political agenda than ever before. By returning to the hopeful tenor of his two presidential campaigns, Obama also hopes to give voice to themes that Democrats can embrace in their campaigns to replace him and win back control of Congress.

"The president's optimism about the country is not because he isn't concerned about the future," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. "His optimism about the country is characterized by his confidence in the American people and our country to overcome those challenges, and just as importantly, to capitalize on the opportunities that exist."

But the country Obama has led for the last seven years doesn't always see it the same way.

Seven in 10 Americans said they see the U.S. heading in the wrong direction, according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last month. That's a marked decline from just two months earlier, and an even steeper fall compared to the first year of Obama's presidency, when less than half said in July 2009 that the U.S. was heading down the wrong path.

Driving that pessimism across the country, polls show, are steep concerns about national security in the era of the Islamic State group and lingering trepidation among some about the quick pace of social change in the U.S.

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On the other hand, while 2015 was a volatile year for Wall Street, Americans are by and large more confident about the economy than they were a few years ago.

While White House aides were careful to avoid describing Tuesday's speech as a victory lap, Obama planned to call attention to his administration's successes, both during the last year and throughout his two terms in office.

Over the past year, Obama has reached a nuclear deal with Iran, re-launched diplomatic relations with Cuba, secured a global climate pact and an Asia-Pacific trade deal, and negotiated a budget deal with the Republican-led Congress. Unemployment has fallen to 5 percent and renewed confidence in the economy led the Federal Reserve to start raising interest rates.

In place of a typical to-do list for Congress — a non-starter as Obama enter his lame-duck phase — the president will speak in broad strokes about what he feels the U.S. can and should aspire to in the future, offering an implicit rebuttal to the sense of pessimism reflected in polls and cable news. He'll also offer a renewed call for unfinished pieces of his agenda that already have a foothold in Congress, such as approval for his Asia-Pacific free trade pact and bipartisan efforts t o overhaul the criminal justice system.

Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, argued Obama's more sanguine message would contrast with the "doom and gloom" attitude being peddled by Republicans this year on the campaign trail and in Congress.

"This kind of stuff appears to work for their politics, but is not based on any reality," McDonough said.

No longer must-watch television, the State of the Union has suffered a major drop-off in viewers amid the proliferation of cable channels and other tempting distractions on a Tuesday night. Last year, Obama's speech reached 31.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen, down from 52 million for his first State of the Union and a whopping 62 million for George W. Bush in 2003.

But Obama isn't going quietly. In a bid to amplify his message, the White House rolled out a dizzying array of social media programming geared not only toward those who won't watch on TV, but also those looking for a "second screen" experience.

The latest innovation ahead of Tuesday's address came by way of a new White House account on Snapchat, where Obama's aides were sharing behind-the-scenes images and videos of its preparations through the see-it-before-it-disappears app. Viewers watching the speech through a YouTube livestream were invited to return on Friday when three YouTube celebrities quiz the president live from the East Room.