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Obama's Final State Of The union


In another noteworthy story this week, President Obama will stand before Congress for his final State of the Union report on Tuesday night. And his speech is expected to look both forward and back. The White House chief of staff says the president will offer, quote, "a big optimistic, generous view of the future," unquote. And this seems to suggest a departure from past speeches, where Mr. Obama has unveiled a list of what he wanted to do. NPR's senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving is here to tell us more about what we're going to see and hear on Tuesday. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So what kinds of hints are we getting about what the president plans to talk about?

ELVING: We're hearing a lot about a non-traditional approach, something that's going to be not the long list, not the catalog of the past. But, you know, the weekend address that we just heard is all about the auto industry, the success of the bailout and how the jobs have been created and how the jobless rate has been cut in half and 90 percent of the country now has health insurance. So there's some hint there that we'll hear a little bit of a victory lap kind of language from the president. But we also know there's going to be a record number of guests in the first lady's box in the gallery. And looking down these names, you know, we've got a governor and a mayor, the CEO of Microsoft, a lot of veterans. But you also see Edith Childs from South Carolina. She was the woman who originated the fired up, ready to go chant back in the first Obama campaign. I'm sure you remember that.

MARTIN: I sure do.

ELVING: Maybe we'll even hear Barack Obama say hope and change again.

MARTIN: So what do we think he's going to spend most of the speech on?

ELVING: The White House says again, he's going to talk about ideas for the future. That would be some immediate ideas and some long-term, things to do this year - guns, the trade deal with the Pacific Rim, things of that nature. But he wants to also set forth an agenda for the country beyond this year, longer-term, things like schools, pluralism in the culture, campaign finance reform, prison reform. Then we're talking care about criminal justice reform in general and, of course, climate change.

MARTIN: So what's the thinking about what is motivating this approach? Is this about perhaps helping the Democratic nominee, or is this really more about creating a narrative around the president's legacy? What do you think?

ELVING: You know, each of those things has the potential to help or harm the other. Nothing is more gratifying for any president than handing over the keys to someone of the president's own party, and that would largely depend on selling a positive vision of Obama's own years in office. So that's important, whoever the Democratic nominee is.

MARTIN: So are there any specific things we might expect to hear from the president on Tuesday? Because it's interesting to me that we're already starting to hear some of the Republicans poke the president, saying he's already checked out and just not that interested in governing at this point in his term.

ELVING: It's going to be hard to feel the president's checked out when he's addressing the whole Congress and everyone else who's watching on Tuesday night. And I think people might be surprised at how positive and celebratory the president is on this occasion with all the problems in the world. I mean, we don't know if he'll ever have another occasion to speak before the Congress. No formal occasion would demand it. And so all the people present at this unique annual event really give him a unique opportunity for a valedictory and a summary of his presidency. So he's going to treat it that way. This is a president who cares a lot about presentation and having an impact. And he's going to work as hard as he can to make this a major hit.

MARTIN: So we should be prepared for something out of the ordinary.

ELVING: There's always a chance something new could be invented to vitalize and to put some juice into this very ritualistic kind of speech. The White House is trying to get us to believe it's going to be different. The president, of course, has told us that we should be prepared for something out of the ordinary we've never heard before - so maybe in the beginning of the speech or the end of the speech or at some sense or another in the packaging of it there will be something that sets this State of the Union apart.

MARTIN: That's NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is co-host of Morning Edition, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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