Previewing the 2016 SOTU

    Planning on watching the State of the Union, but have no way of keeping track of what's happening? NBN's got you covered. Check out our preview below so you'll know what to expect before you tune in and start playing bingo on January 12 at 8:00 p.m.

    Production by Matthew Zhang/ North By Northwestern

    Even if you’re not a fellow politics junkie, SOTU is worth watching because:

    1. It’s your president previewing you on big moves for the year.
    2. This is Obama’s final year in office, meaning we can expect bigger political risks and wrapping up a presidential legacy.
    3. Rumor has it (aka reports by senior officials in the administration) that Barry-O will be using a non-traditional format for the annual address.
    4. Obama’s moves have more weight than usual because of their guaranteed discussion in the election debates and the imminent primary votes in January and February.

    The Obama to-do list has some empty boxes that we may see checked off this year: closing Guantanamo Bay, criminal justice reform and executive action on gun control. 2015 was a productive year for the administration, and Obama will build on a few key moments: the historic nuclear deal with Iran, Paris agreement on climate change and the beginning of normalizing ties with Cuba. Secretary of State John Kerry's December op-ed in the Boston Globe appluaded the year's accomplishments, hailing the climate change agreement as the most important.

    This year will be more about conversation-starting than policymaking for the administration, according to White House aides. The SOTU will begin this approach in contrast to the annual speech's usual format of outlining legislative priorities. Obama is not just holding a conversaton with the American people, however. He's also conversing with the 2016 field, and he is expected to lean towards an endorsement of a Democratic candidate. The early SOTU date is clearly conscious of presidential politics.

    NBN is here to help you make sense of the last year and feel like an informed SOTU viewer, and hey, maybe you can pariticpate in the live-tweeting frenzy, too.

    Climate Change

    Obama’s environmental consciousness extends far beyond his willingness to tackle bad-ass hikes and survive in Alaska with Bear Grylls. Expect a huge emphasis on climate change in the address, because Obama built on the goals he enumerated in the 2015 SOTU, it looks good for the Democratic Party in an election year, it fits with his personal brand presidential legacy and is thus essential to the big picture Obama is expected to spend the year shaping.

    Securing the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015 solidifies the importance of keeping global temperatures down among signatories both developed and developing. A hope Obama articulated in the 2015 address thus came to fruition, when he said, "other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that this year the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got." The U.S. leadership in the agreement stands in stark contrast with the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, which pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

    Actually Containing ISIS

    Obama began the 2015 SOTU by citing the end of an era in Afghanistan and Iraq, going as far as to say “the shadow of crisis has passed.” Yet today, Americans top concerns include terror, specifically coming from the Islamic State out of Iraq. In December 2015, 83 percent of Americans told Pew they considered ISIS “a major threat to the well-being of the U.S.”

    “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance," Obama said in 2015, referring to a variation of the group's name. Yet in 2015, ISIS not only expanded its ground campaigns in the Middle East, but also demonstrated an ability to coordinate attacks the world that shocked the world. Pew reports that American’s views of how the U.S. government is handing terror has fallen to its lowest point after 9/11. Republican candidates have capitalized on terror attacks to demonstrate Obama and the Democratic Party’s weakness in foreign policy. If Obama wants to focus on big ideas, he will need to address this specific policy plan to really give Americans more confidence in the State of the Union.

    Normalizing Relations with Cuba

    Listen for Obama to explain next steps and the bigger picture behind his policies in U.S.-Cuba relations, one of his more monumental foreign policy projects. Obama met with Cuban president Raúl Castro in a year where relations warmed significantly after diplomatic severance during the Cold War, shortly after the 1959 revolution in which Fidel Castro came to power. Today, Freedom House rankings still classify Cuba as “not free."

    A deal to resume commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba is close to take-off, and U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba under 12 types of legal travel, such as educational programs, and bring back up to $100 in cigars. More significant action, and a possible visit from Obama, hinges upon Cuba’s domestic changes. Depending on whether a presidential visit would help push progress for Cuba, a visit could be decided upon early this year, according to a senior aide.

    U.S. congressional support is needed to lift the embargo. While the GOP will continue to discuss disagreements with Obama policy throughout the 2016 race, presidential candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio will have more to say on Obama’s Cuba policy. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, leads the fight against normalizing relations and lifting the embargo. “The embargo is critical to denying hard currency to the Cuban regime’s monopolies, which history has proven are only used to further oppression and enrich those close to the ruling class,” Rubio wrote in a letter to Obama in September 2015.

    Asia Pivot

    A few final pieces of Obama's pivot to Asia, as the foreign policy shift has been branded, will likely be cemented in 2016 and discussed in the address. The pivot, however, has been largely overshadowed by continued engagement in the Middle East, the brokering of the Iran deal, ISIS threatening the West and Syria's civil war raging. Obama will talk up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which will have its moment crowning in 2016. The deal expands trade agreements with Pacific rim nations (including Mexico and Canada, but not China). The deal's negotitations have concluded among the 12 countries participating, but still needs a U.S. congressional vote.

    About a month after the address, Obama will host the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from February 15-16 in California, the first time the organization has come together in the U.S. Four ASEAN countries are members of the TPP. Recall that Chinese president Xi Jinping visited D.C. in October for his first state visit, a year after Obama and Jinping announced a climate pact in Beijing, pledging huge reductions in pollution. In 2016, Obama's schedule includes trips to China and Laos, the latter which has never been visited by a U.S. president, as well as plans for a visit to Vietnam.

    Wait, what the hell is the SOTU again?

    The annual January address has become a hoopla in the world of broadcast and social media, but it's origins are constitutional. Article II describes executive power, and Section III is where it all began: "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

    "Presidents are always talking," presidential scholar and Northwestern professor Daniel Galvin explained. "But in the State of the Union, the President actually recommends measures for the legislature's consideration, and that's why it has historical significance."

    Compared to other presidential addresses to Congress or executive actions that also communicate legislative priorities, the SOTU remains special in its constitutional mandate, Galvin said.

    The least important but most fun part: make sure to get a laugh out of the faces Vice President Biden and Speaker Ryan make while standing behind Obama in the chamber. Review last year's highlights here in the meantime. It's almost part of the annual tradition.

    The Last Obama SOTU and His Legacy

    The last SOTU for any president's term resonates because of the combination of widespread viewing and relevant conversation about presidential legacy as the term comes to a close. Obama has the opportunity to shape two narratives – that of his presidential legacy, and that of the Democratic race into 2016.

    In terms of the Democratic Party, Obama hasn't been huge on building the party, according to Galvin. Obama's last address is a chance to shape Democratic priorities going forward.

    Presidents' time in office give them a broader horizon than other officials. "They're shaping the currents of history," Galvin explained. "Obama is going to identify priorities going forward, so history looks like something he shaped."

    Politico's Michael Grunwald explains that although inititally dismissed as a talker known for his rhetoric, Obama ended up as "much more of a doer, an action-oriented policy grind who has often failed to communicate what he’s done." This characterization gives extra weight to this SOTU, as a necessary explanation.

    "Obama wants to creative a narrative that fixes his place in history on his own terms," Galvin said. "He doesn't want Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton to be defining his place."


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