President Barack Obama will deliver his last State of the Union speech at a moment when the fear and anger in the American electorate seem to have caught

even him by surprise.

His challenge as he takes the biggest stage in American politics Tuesday is whether his message can rise above the election-season vitriol.

Obama has promised a speech that, in his words, cuts through the "day-to-day noise of Washington" and celebrates America's capacity "to come together as one American family."

Instead of a to-do list of policy proposals that have little chance of passing Congress, he has said he plans to deliver a speech that will describe "who we are" as a nation or, perhaps more accurately, who Obama in the last year of his presidency would like us to be.

The problem for the president in his seventh year in office is that the gulf between his vision of a unified America — one that he has trumpeted from his earliest days on the national scene — and the current political reality has never seemed wider.

This final address from the House chamber represents one of his last, best chances to frame the November election.

On issues ranging from guns, immigration reform and Middle Eastern refugees, Obama faces a deeply divided American public. Some of his signature political victories from 2015, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the opening to Cuba, have provoked Republican backlash.

The divide is perhaps deepest on issues of war and terrorism, which are likely to dominate Obama's last year in office as well as the upcoming election.


Obama, his speechwriters and his national security team were still working on drafts of the speech last week and over the weekend, said White House officials.

In the battle against the Islamic State, Obama has struggled to balance intense fear of terrorism after last fall's attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., with his conviction that there are no fast fixes to the problems in Iraq or Syria. The Islamic State occupies parts of both countries.

The United States is counting on local forces, backed by American air power, to take territory slowly from Islamic State fighters. A bolstered counterterrorism effort will seek in the coming months to kill the group's senior leaders through drone strikes and raids, officials say.

Only a year ago, Obama used his State of the Union address to declare the end of an era marked by 15 years of terrorism and continuous war. "Tonight we turn the page," the president began last January. "Tonight for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over."

Today there are fewer than 15,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, down from a high of 180,000 when Obama took office. But the president's "turn the page" metaphor already seems dated.

In the past few weeks, seven U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, and the president's top commander there has said he does not think further cuts to the current force of 9,800 members of the U.S. military are realistic anytime soon.

The campaign to defeat the Islamic State will be "an overarching focus to everything we do around the world this year," Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, told reporters this month.

The president has struggled to calibrate his remarks to match the country's mood.

"So much of his legacy was built around ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Julianne Smith, a former Obama White House official and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "We all expected to be in a different place, and we're not."

Obama has responded with a campaign that emphasizes the limits of American power to repair the Middle East and seeks to keep U.S. forces from being drawn too deeply into chaotic quagmires.

The president's approach has provoked heavy criticism from Republicans, who are promising more bombs and tighter restrictions on Muslim refugees.

"We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, of his plan for the Islamic State. "I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out!"

Republican front-runner Donald Trump has proposed a temporary ban on all Muslim immigrants to the United States.

Obama initially mocked the Republican rhetoric as fearful and weak.

"When candidates say we wouldn't admit 3-year-old orphans — that's political posturing," Obama said in November.

A few weeks later in a prime-time address to the nation, Obama took a different course: "The threat from terrorism is real. But we will overcome it. Our success won't depend on tough talk or abandoning our values or giving in to fear."

The State of the Union offers Obama another big opportunity to make his case that America is strong and secure enough to stay the course and stick to its values.

But it also presents him a huge political opportunity to talk to the country about what kind of person should replace him.

The worry among establishment Republicans is that Obama will seize upon remarks by candidates such as Trump to discredit the party.

"I suspect he'll be very tempted to paint the entire party with a broad brush as anti-immigrant, rather than seek out common ground," said Michael Green, a former Bush White House official and senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Obama faces a similar challenge on domestic issues such as gun violence, and he has sought to appeal to universal American values.

"The majority of people in this country are a lot more sensible than what you see in Washington," Obama said at a CNN town hall meeting on the gun issue last week.

He derided the capital and Congress as a place where "the loudest, shrillest voices" dominate.

At the State of the Union, the president will use silence to make his case. The White House said it will leave one seat empty in the first lady's State of the Union guest box to highlight the toll of gun violence on the country.

In the days after his speech, Obama will travel deep into the Republican heartland. In Omaha and then in Baton Rouge, La., he plans to continue to make his case, betting that in even the reddest of states, he will find people who are willing to listen.

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