A Strikingly Different State of the Union Address

President Obama went before Congress one last time, to offer a plea for civic unity—and some sharp jabs at Republican presidential candidates.

Pool / Reuters

President Obama and his aides promised that this year’s State of the Union address would be different, and he delivered on that promise. It was a somewhat unusual speech: Surprisingly devoted to rebutting Republican candidates for president, unusually loose and humorous, and elsewhere strikingly cerebral, passing up the tear-jerking climaxes of past addresses for a wonky and cerebral—though no less heartfelt—plea for civics and a better politics.

The goal of the speech, aides said in previews, would be for Obama to begin to frame his own legacy for the historians. He would eschew the standard litany of policy ideas in favor of a broader look at the future. That’s what he did.

Early on, the president articulated the progressive view of the world. “America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights,” he said. “Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears.” But he added, “Such progress is not inevitable. It is the result of choices we make together.” That’s a clear-eyed view of history for a leader who has often fallen into the trap of portraying history as an inexorable march toward human perfection.

Even in these early moments, the implicit rebuke to the Republican Party’s presidential candidates was already present—“fear” having been a signal theme in the race so far, and in particular in the last GOP debate. His comments seemed at first like a possible coincidence; then, as the speech continued, there was line after line that carefully targeted to respond to specific comments from Republican candidates, evidence of how closely Obama is tracking the race to succeed him. “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” he fired at Trump. He rejected “over-the-top claims that this is World War III,” contra Chris Christie. “Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians,” he snipped at Ted Cruz.

Yet Obama made conciliatory gestures toward the Republicans in the Congress, twice praising new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and urging bipartisan work on criminal-justice reform.

Policy proposals were indeed in short supply. Some of the few specifics to pop up were ideas that have been floating around for several years—such as free, two-year community-college degrees—or since the start of his presidency, as in the case of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Several other signature topics were missing. Save a brief mention at the start, guns and gun control were notably absent from the speech, even as Obama rolls out new executive actions to further regulate firearm sales. Although debate about race relations and police reform has dominated the headlines since Obama last stepped to the rostrum in the House a year ago, he barely touched on either, except to rebuke Trump and to criticize restrictions on voting. There were few references to domestic terrorism, and none at all to abortion.

Obama spoke at some length about ISIS and global terrorism, however, as well as Middle East policy. In keeping with his recent remarks, he framed the comments as a plea for calm. “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close,” he said, then tacked on a line that he perhaps intended as a joke but which garnered applause, especially from Republicans: “We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”

As for what he intended to do with that military, Obama sought to strike a balance. On the one hand, he promised to chase terrorists down and kill them. (His “we have to take ‘em out” was a jarring echo of his predecessor.) He called on Congress to authorize military action against ISIS. But he also warned, “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”

The most extensive section of the speech, however, concerned climate change, in which the president hailed the Paris climate talks and demanded action on emissions—not only to save the planet, but also as a way for American businesses to prosper. And he came with a sharp jab at doubters.

“Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it,” Obama chuckled. “You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”

That was only one of many jokes Obama told throughout the evening—a casual and folksy turn, and one that seems to suit this president. Though acclaimed for his oratory, his advisers have concluded that the stiff, formal nature of the typical State of the Union doesn’t work well for him. So out came the jokes. “For this final one, I’m going to try to make it shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.” “Now, I’m guessing we won’t agree on health care anytime soon.” “I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air.”

Yet what the speech lacked was the emotional climax he has often built toward late in his State of the Union addresses: a requiem for slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton in 2013; a paean to gravely injured Army Ranger Cory Remsburg in 2014; an impassioned plea not to give in to cynicism last year.

In its place was something drier—but perhaps more interesting in the long run than a cathartic, melodramatic close. A president who has often been derided as too “Spocklike” and cerebral, he closed by combining an abstract lecture about the importance of cooperation in democracy with the themes of unity and optimism that he deployed to such great effect during his first White House run in 2008. Yet those themes have evolved, reshaped by nearly eight years as president.

Obama ran for office promising to bridge the divides that separated the United States during George W. Bush’s presidency. While Obama’s advocates point to a massive, underappreciated policy resume, his failure to deliver on that likely unrealistic promise has haunted him, as he noted with uncharacteristic humility.

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said. “I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”

In calling to renew the work of unity, he again seemed to take aim at Republican presidential candidates. “Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic,” he said. “Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.”

Yet Obama’s next line spoke to some of the very impulses that have fueled the Trump candidacy: “Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.”

In making a case for campaign-finance reform, he tried to appeal to Republicans, saying no one liked fundraising, and no one liked feeling overly beholden to the most extreme voices in their parties: “You feel trapped by your base. I know; you’ve told me. It’s the worst kept secret in Washington!”

Obama admitted that this goal does not seem any closer now than it when he took office. “It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter,” he said. “But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.”

During the 2008 campaign, Obama presented his own life story as proof of what America can do. Seven years later, his biography now also serves as a reminder of how the structures of politics can stifle even the best intentioned efforts to tear them down. Once, Obama offered himself as change voters could believe in. The president hasn’t given up his belief in change, but as he said in closing, the center of his faith now lies outside himself: “I believe in change because I believe in you.” —David Graham

10:20 pm: In some ways, Obama's address was especially true to its formal title: "State of the Union." He summed up where he thought the nation was, and where he believed it needs to go. But because there was so little focus on what specific policies he wants to enact ​this year, I found myself wondering what part of this speech he couldn't have delivered on January 20, 2017, as a farewell address. —Russell Berman

10:18 pm: We’re actually going to get two Republican responses, it seems. The official response will be delivered shortly by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. But a good chunk of the speech was a not-terribly-subtle attack on Donald Trump’s style on the stump, and Trump’s already tweeted a response. That’s more likely to dominate coverage tomorrow than whatever Haley chooses to say. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:15 pm: President Obama’s approach has always been to emphasize shared ground rather than to dispute contested ground. At its best, this is a useful reminder of how much Americans actually have in common in a culture dominated by ideologically polarized cable-news channels and cultural tribes that increasingly live and socialize apart from one another. At its worst, it elides or evades the roots of actual, deeply held disagreements, perpetually failing to hash them out or adjudicate them. To me, that strength and that weakness were both on display in the substance of tonight’s speech. As for the style, it was strong. It’s easy to forget how likable seeming Obama is when he’s being covered rather than addressing us himself, but of course, almost everyone who rises to the presidency can turn on that quality, can charm a room, can tap into something in a majority of his audience that makes them feel better about themselves. And I think that Obama succeeded at that tonight. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:14 pm: Two strong traditions observed: a long (​semi-concealed) laundry list speech; and a final sentence of, sigh, “God Bless the United States.” One tradition broken: People in the First Lady’s box delivered their message by being there, not be being called out, prop-style. Good night all! Back to day-job duties. God Bless the United States of America.James Fallows

10:13 pm: This is the 2004 convention speech, given by a person who has spent the intervening years dealing with the successes and failures of actually governing. —James Fallows

10:12 pm: The microphones catch Representative Dan Kildee of Michigan bringing up the Flint water crisis to the president as he shakes in while he leaves. "I've been reading about it," Obama says. —Russell Berman

10:11 pm: Donald Trump, who was implicitly criticized for large portions of the State of the Union, weighs in on the address:

Matt Ford

10:11 pm: Mentions of immigration were scarce this year. In the past, Obama pushed for—and extensively talked about—comprehensive immigration reform. As the president noted early on tonight, this State of the Union address was not intended to list policy proposals, which could serve as a reason for its omission. But doing so also comes at a time when Democratic lawmakers have expressed frustrations with the administration over recent immigration raids. It seems as though, for now, he’ll leave it to the Democratic presidential candidates to set the tone on immigration as 2016 unfolds. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:10 pm: Obama’s closing line, "I believe in change because I believe in you,” is a fascinating contrast with his campaign message back in 2008—that we should believe in change because his life story demonstrated that it is possible. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:09 pm: Obama's "I see it.." harkens to the repetitive style of oration that made him instantly famous in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention.  Back then, it was "I believe..." —Marina Koren

10:08 pm: Obama’s emphasis on a shared American identity is ultimately a criticism against both right and left—against the sort of right-winger who saw Obama himself as a foreign other and the sort left-winger sees racial or ethnic or gender identity as the most important aspect of an individual’s identity. Obama’s views are at odds with both of them. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:08 pm: I can't help but wonder what John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy were thinking as Obama bemoaned the growing influence of money in politics and the roll back of voting rights—two growing trends that the two justices directly precipitated—only 15 feet in front of them. —Matt Ford

10:08 pm: “The state of our union is strong.” This line comes either at the beginning or the end of every State of the Union. Makes sense to come at the end of this one. —James Fallows

10:06 pm: This was still a pretty long speech..… —Steve Clemons

10:06 pm: It’s a subtle point, but in the prepared text, Obama says, “I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late to finish her science project.” That capital letter is a tell that he’s talking about an immigrant who would qualify under the DREAM Act—a message that will be hearten immigration reformers, even as it’s likely to pass unnoticed by much of the listening public. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:05 pm: This peroration could, again, have come straight from the 2004 convention speech.  That is the mode in which Obama is most comfortable, punctuated by 7+ years of flat-out partisan battle. —James Fallows

10:04 pm: Prediction: Five years from now, the “can’t we reason together” part of Obama will be embraced even by the GOP. More on that later. —James Fallows

10:04 pm: It is too much to hope that … we are not going to have a Lenny Skutnik moment??? —James Fallows

10:03 pm: Paul Ryan is making it very hard to discern what policies he supports and opposes by basically having no reaction at all. He's shifted uncomfortably in his chair throughout the speech, but he's barely clapped for anything. —Russell Berman

10:02 pm: Obama points out that polarization is a problem, that lots of people would like to fix it, that he hasn’t succeeded—and he implores the public to “change the system to reflect their better selves”—and suggests these specific fixes: bipartisan gerrymandering, less money in politics, and a modernized system that makes voting easier. Among those, it seems to me that only the first would actually result in less polarization, even if one believes that the latter two are also good ideas. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:01 pm: Obama is telling the country that the founding fathers "expected us to argue" in the future—but the guy who most expected this is Alexander Hamilton, and he should announce that he is going to survive and stay on $10 bill. —Steve Clemons

10:01 pm: Have to change the system to reflect our better selves.” That is well put. But Ryan won’t stand for (a) nonpartisan districts or (b) to reduce the role of money in politics. Again a note of partisan situation circa 2016. —James Fallows

10:00 pm: Obama says that Lincoln and FDR were better at the job than he is! —James Fallows

10:00 pm: In addition to dispensing with the 'laundry list' of proposals, Obama is forgoing another tradition of State of the Union addresses since Reagan: While First Lady Michelle Obama invited a number of guests to sit beside her who amplify the president's message, Obama isn't calling any of them out during his speech, perhaps to save time. —Russell Berman

9:59 pm: What we’re hearing now is the 12-years-later bookend to the time Obama first came to national attention, with his “not red but blue but United States” speech in Boston in 2004. —James Fallows

9:59 pm: Obama says one of the few regrets of his presidency is the level of "rancor" still in politics today. Democracy doesn't work if "we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice," or "think political opponents are unpatriotic" or "trying to weaken America." —Nora Kelly

9:58 pm: This is going to come in at well over an hour’s length. Just observing: 1) it’s been a trend over time, starting — surprise! — with Bill Clinton; 2) ratings have generally shown that the public is patient with longish speeches, wanting the details. But also 3) Obama started by saying “this will be short… and different.” It’s really difficult to buck the trend. —James Fallows

9:57 pm: “The world respects us for our diversity and our openness”: I have spent a dozen years of my working life outside the U.S.  This is a point that is obviously true from outside and that is periodically forgotten from inside. —James Fallows

9:57 pm: Obama's push to demythologize ISIS is fascinating. Referring to them as "masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages" is a clear effort to deny them the legitimacy of a caliphate, and the ideological potency that comes with it. At the same time, he's clearly taking pains not to underplay ISIS's potential threat. It's a tough needle to thread when many Americans' understanding of the group comes from cable news soundbites. Stating that ISIS isn't an existential threat to the U.S. is absolutely true, but don't be surprised if he gets attacked for it by some candidates on the campaign trail. —Matt Ford

9:56 pm:  In this shot, it appears that the GOP is not standing to cheer anti-AIDS, anti-malaria campaign. Just a little moment in the partisan divide circa 2016. —James Fallows

9:56 pm: Obama circles back to a campaign promise that has come up again and again, State of the Union after State of the Union: "That is why I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo: it’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies." But Congress has for years opposed  the use of federal funds for the transfer of any Guantanamo prisoners to American soil, and polling shows most Americans say the U.S. shouldn’t close the detention center. Instead, the U.S. has slowly transferred some of the detainees to their home countries—or other countries that will take them. —Marina Koren

9:55 pm: As Obama talks up U.S. efforts to "prevent a nuclear-armed Iran" the elephant in the room is the fact that earlier today Iran took 10 U.S. sailors into custody. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio seized on the incident to criticize the administration earlier in the day, telling Fox News: "They know the boundaries are pretty wide and this administration is willing to let them get away with many things." —Clare Foran

9:55 pm: This is the "I-won't-dare-say-his-name-but-Donald-Trump-is-wrong" section of the speech. —Russell Berman

9:54 pm: Obama’s attempts at uplift and emphasis on synergy frequently stray into a presentation of a fantastical foreign-policy landscape where there are no tough or even unsavory choices, just common-sense measures that are good for America and every other country on earth. Sometimes other countries have conflicting interests! —Conor Friedersdorf

9:53 pm: Obama calls on Congress to lift the embargo on Cuba, saying "You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over.” So far, since announcing the renewal of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014,  Cuba has been dropped from the state-terrorism list, and embassies have opened up in both countries. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:53 pm: Back story: Although obviously I am honor-bound not to reveal what was discussed in an off-the-record briefing, it seems to me that this section of the speech—TPP, Ebola, Cuba, (and the Iran deal must be coming)—reflects things that the president thinks deserves a hell of a lot more attention. —James Fallows

9:52 pm: In a rather ominous sign for Obama's big trade deal, the president's call for Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership drew rather lukewarm applause. It's not a surprise: Democrats by and large oppose it, while Republicans who are generally pro-trade have concerns with some of the final concessions the Obama administration made in the deal. —Russell Berman

9:51 pm: In Obama’s view, the “how Ebola was stopped” story is really, really a major story. More on that another time. —James Fallows

9:50 pm: “Fortunately there is a smarter approach.” That is really the way braniac Obama is going to appeal to his opponents! —James Fallows

9:49 pm: Obama is pandering to the kill-a-thug part of the audience that wants vengeance against ISIS bad guys. But America's challenges are much bigger. —Steve Clemons

9:48 pm: “Our reach has no limit.” Maybe not the ideal line for a president whose major criticism-from-the-left is about the national security state. —James Fallows

9:48 pm: The president once again calls for an AUMF against the Islamic State: "If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote." Multiple AUMF proposals have fallen on willfully deaf ears in Congress in the last year, even as members repeatedly criticize the president for not being tough enough against terrorist groups. —Nora Kelly

9:48 pm: It really is extraordinary to have a president begging for an authorization to use military force against an enemy that nearly everyone in Congress believes that we ought to be trying to hunt and destroy in some manner or other. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:47 pm: "For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology." Cut to Lindsey Graham—who refers to that ideology as "radical Islam," a phrase Obama avoids—looking unimpressed. —Marina Koren

9:47 pm: Obama is rightly talking about his various achievements in fighting terror around the globe. Notably absent here is much talk of domestic terror, even in the wake of the allegedly ISIS-inspired shooting in Philadelphia. —David Graham

9:47 pm: “Just ask Osama bin Laden.” If the Key & Peele anger translator were here, he would render that as “F… you."—James Fallows

9:46 pm: Obama is very effective, as this point in his presidency, at projecting cool confidence, even cockiness, in his approach to the fight against ISIS. This will, I think, be effective, though it could backfire in the event of an unexpected terrorist attack. Confidence is attractive until it seems like overconfidence. Of course, we all hope that doesn’t happen. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:45 pm: Let me say it again, at 9:45 p.m.: You can run from the tradition of the laundry-list style, “can’t afford to leave out this point” State of the Union. But you can’t hide. The tradition is stronger than you are. —James Fallows

9:45 pm: What Obama has been saying for past five or six minutes very closely tracks the sensitive “off the record” briefing he gave some reporters a few weeks ago. “I’m a pretty consistent guy,” he said then. —James Fallows

9:44 pm: "But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” Obama says, in a veiled response to Republican presidential candidates, like Chris Christie, who have dubbed it so. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:44 pm: Obama is right about America’s relative strength in the world––and given the drumbeat of doom on the daily news, pointing out basic facts like the might of our military and lack of rivals even close to our strength may be the most important thing he says tonight to the people in the audience who only hear more pessimistic assessments. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:43 pm: Long view of Middle East—transformation that will take decades, rooting in conflicts going back much longer—would be a useful guide to U.S. policy in that part of the world. Just saying. —James Fallows

9:43 pm: While President Obama says that the U.S. spends more money on defense than the next 8 nations combined, it used to be the next 25 nations combined. —Steve Clemons

9:43 pm: It's disappointing to hear Obama propagating the tired (and false) idea that Middle Eastern strife is "rooted in conflicts that date back millennia." —David Graham

9:42 pm: Obama has now entered the "Everyone calm down" portion of the speech, devoted to national security. —Russell Berman

9:42 pm: “Finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Everyone stands to cheer. Hmm, who could have seen that coming. —James Fallows

9:41 pm: Obama devotes considerable time to talking about climate change and clean energy. He starts by calling out anyone who would ignore the threat of climate change, a not-so-subtle shot at many Republicans in Congress. The president adopts a nonchalant approach, essentially mocking anyone who isn't on board with climate science. "Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely," Obama says. But the president isn't bringing up his environmental agenda simply to criticize conservatives. This is a messaging opportunity. The ultimate success, or failure, of the president's climate agenda may hinge on whether his successor is willing to finish what he started,  given that so much of what he has achieved so far relies on executive authority. —Clare Foran

9:40 pm: “Just one of many issues where our security is linked to the rest of the world’s.” This is what is known in the trade as a “Turning now to foreign affairs” just-does-the-job transition. —James Fallows

9:40 pm: Ah, it's time for some good, old-fashioned jingoism: " The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. It's not even close!" —David Graham

9:40 pm: "None of this will happen overnight," Obama says of moving toward renewable energy sources and investing in transportation technology. That line is quickly becoming a go-to for the president this year.  In his emotional speech on gun violence last week, Obama said that stricter gun regulation "won’t happen in this Congress, it won’t happen in my presidency. But a lot of things don’t happen overnight"—like the movements that abolished slavery, gave women the right to vote, and granted equal rights to LGBT people, he said. —Marina Koren

9:38 pm: Obama can no more take credit for $2 gas than Newt Gingrich could promise Americans $2.50 gas during his 2012 presidential run. —David Graham

9:37 pm: Obama just referenced Vice President Joe Biden's "moon shot" to end cancer, and the "critical" importance of supporting medical research. Biden, he mentioned, worked with members of Congress to give the National Institutes of Health its biggest funding bump in more than a decade in the omnibus. And Obama is putting Biden in charge of "mission control" in a new American quest to cure cancer. I wrote about that funding bump, and how Congress came together to support the NIH, last month. —Nora Kelly

9:37 pm: Joe Biden mouthed, "I didn't know that," as Obama announced that he would be in charge of a national plan to cure cancer. I know it sounds like an Onion article, but I promise actually happened. —Matt Ford

9:37 pm: Republicans not cheering more money for NIH. No larger point, just interesting. —James Fallows

9:36 pm: It's interesting that Obama went through that whole section on Biden and the "moonshot" to cure cancer without explicitly mentioning the inspiration: the death this past year of the vice president's son, Beau. —Russell Berman

9:35 pm: "Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon." And six years after that, Russians and Americans put their differences away and participated in the first-ever joint U.S.–Soviet space flight—a symbol of a young détente. Today, space is one of the few places in the universe in which the U.S. and Russia cooperate. —Marina Koren

9:35 pm: Here's some very interesting background from The New York Times on the controversial doctor Joe Biden has tapped to work on that cancer moonshot. —David Graham

9:34 pm: "Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer,” Obama said, adding that he’s "putting Joe in charge of Mission Control.” Biden has made cancer a priority after losing his son to brain cancer. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:34 pm: The line about Walking on the Moon illustrates the jujitsu I was mentioning earlier. Obama began the sentence with (implicit) mention of climate change, ended with Americans on the Moon. Republicans either had to cheer a sentence that included climate change, or sit huffily while he celebrates Apollo missions.  (Most chose the latter.) —James Fallows

9:32 pm: Obama is still on point number 1 of 4, at 9:30 p.m.  Early assessment: this is in fact not going to be that dramatically different a SOTU. —James Fallows

9:32 pm: I'd be interested to know which companies Obama is thinking of when he says, "many of our best corporate citizens are also our most creative." What's his view on "sharing economy" apps like Uber, and their effect on the market? How about Apple, with its oft-maligned overseas labor and tax practices? —David Graham

9:31 pm: As Obama talks about his presidency's legacy—the Affordable Care Act—I'm reminded of this series of photos taken by White House photographer Pete Souza in June, when an aide interrupted Obama's daily briefing to inform the president that the Supreme Court had affirmed the health-care law's subsidies ruling: Obama, eyes closed, grinning, one arm raised. —Marina Koren

9:31 pm: Congress seems to agree almost unanimously that Congress has passed some bad laws that should be undone. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:30 pm: Again a nice stagecraft touch: Obama knows perfectly well that Paul Ryan is on screen during every second of this speech. So nice touch to compliment him (on anti poverty measures), knowing that Ryan will face the choice of smiling gracefully or seeming churlish. —James Fallows

9:29 pm: Obama finds another area where he and Speaker Ryan can (potentially) find common ground: poverty. He even has a few ideas for how to tackle the problem. "I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers without kids," the president says.—Clare Foran

9:28 pm: Obama's call to "strengthen" Social Security and Medicare is a boon to Bernie Sanders and his progressive supporters, who desperately want to move the debate beyond how to trim entitlements and talk about ways to expand them. —Russell Berman

9:27 pm: Very nice line about “the only people who will have the same job... are sitting in this chamber.” Wish he was looking at Supreme Court justices. —James Fallows

9:27 pm: Tough room. Obama's quip that "some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber" only garners stifled guffaws. —David Graham

9:26 pm: "We've made progress, but we need to make more," Obama says. He's said a version of that line in just about every State of the Union address, and his speech tonight highlights the difficulty he's had in selling Americans on the economic recovery. There's been plenty of good news, but millions of people haven't felt it, and he's trying to reflect that. —Russell Berman

9:26 pm: Obama faces a difficult balancing act. The president wants to sell his  achievements and deliver a message of hope. But he doesn't want to seem unsympathetic to the fact that many Americans feel scared and anxious, in part over the threat of terrorism. The result is a series of assertions that dart back and forth between uplifting messages and reflections on a sobering reality. The president tells us that "we live in a time of extraordinary change," but goes on to explain that change isn't always easy. "It's change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions," Obama says, and change that "promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away." For Obama, the good cannot be separated from the bad. —Clare Foran

9:25 pm: To me this economic section is eliding a fact of modern American life: this generation faces far more competition from abroad than bygone generations faced. In many ways, that’s a good thing. Europe isn’t devastated by war. China’s economy is growing rather than being ruined by a devastating foray into Communism. But for Americans comparing their lot to the generation that grew up after World War II––that lived in a world where the American car industry dominated the world––this competition has involved trade-offs. Telling people, “we’re better off now than ever before,” is true in some ways, but deeply misleading in others. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:23 pm: As Obama mentions job creation, best year ever for car makers, etc., this important substance marker—for the speech, for the the coming year (and decade):

On the merits, the U.S. is in ​fundamentally better shape than any other country.  Yes, a million problems. But overall, as I’ve kept arguing in the magazine (and will in a forthcoming piece), the over/under of US prospects would be the envy of any other country.
Traditionally, talking-up the U.S., its achievements, and its prospects would be the province of the Republicans. Think of Reagan, and the way he played off Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” (a word that, of course, he never used). Yet the theme of the current GOP is that we’re going to hell, in a way we’ve never gone before. Somehow Democrats feel/seem awkward in making the “things are better thank you think!” case. Even Obama seems not quite full-throated in advancing it. —James Fallows

9:23 pm: Obama's comments about the importance of workers having a voice in their wages is especially poignant, coming a day after Supreme Court oral arguments that seemed to presage another serious blow to American unions. —David Graham

9:21 pm: This sure reads like a not-especially veiled shot at Donald Trump: “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” —David Graham

9:21 pm: Obama’s four Big Questions for the future are a more interesting way to organize a speech than the standard State of the Union. We’ll see how he spins them out. —James Fallows

9:21 pm: Obama lists four big questions for the country focused on the economy, technology, keeping America safe, and ensuring politics reflect what’s best in the country. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:20 pm: "We secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love." In 2009, six months into his presidency, Obama signed a memorandum granting some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. Fast forward a few years, and the White House is lit up with the colors of the rainbow in celebration of gay marriage becoming the law of the land. —Marina Koren

9:19 pm: Despite framing policy as “choices we make together,” President Obama is not a doctrinaire democrat. There are plenty of changes he favors that majorities of Americans oppose. Sometimes he has used his executive authority to advance those priorities anyway. Sometimes he is more of an elitist technocrat than someone who believes in shared choices. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:18 pm: It’s easy for a new president, addressing Congress for the first time, to lay out a set of priorities and a vision for the future. What Obama is attempting tonight is considerably harder: redoubling his effort to advance priorities he’s been unable, for seven years, to convince Congress to pursue, and addressing challenges that have persisted throughout his tenure. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:17 pm: Obama says, “But such progress is not inevitable. It's the result of choices we make together.” I’m particularly glad to hear this, having last month laid out a detailed critique of Obama’s disappointing tendency to speak of history as an ever-improving linear process, an agent of change unto itself. It’s a bad impulse, and it’s good to hear him fighting it. —David Graham

9:17 pm: President Obama’s conceit is that there has always been change, that people always feared it, and that those fears were overcome. This progressive view of history certainly has its supporting examples, but surely there are some changes that were negative, that would’ve better been resisted. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:15 pm: Obama is articulating what amounts to an uplifting plea for progressivism. "We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the 'dogmas of the quiet past,'” he says. "Instead we thought anew, and acted anew." —David Graham

9:15 pm: "I want to focus on the next five years," the next 10 years, "and beyond." Now that he's gotten through his legislative priorities for the next year, Obama is moving on to the broader themes we were told to expect. —Nora Kelly

9:14 pm: "We live in a time of extraordinary change," says Obama, and it's tough not to read that, in some way, as a throwback to his first election slogan: "Change we can believe in." —Marina Koren

9:13 pm: There are times when presidents look as if they’re burdened by the weight of a million woes. Obama looks like he is having some fun. —James Fallows

9:13 pm: Obama starts his speech with a conciliatory nod toward Republicans, thanking Speaker Ryan for helping to "pass a budget and make tax cuts permanent for working families." Then he mentions two policy areas he hopes the GOP will help him advance: criminal-justice reform, and curbing prescription-drug abuse. The early shoutouts are an indicator of high priority for the president. —Clare Foran

9:12 pm: Opening: Actually very nice “antsy to get back to Iowa” opening! Solidarity through “let’s make this shorter.” And a nice little needle about, “I know about Iowa—I’ve been there!” I.e., I have been there and won. And the rest of you—let’s see your stuff.—James Fallows

9:12 pm: "And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa." Obama's got jokes—and there are many more to come in the prepared remarks. —David Graham

9:10 pm: Perhaps going forward we could work to establish a new piece of etiquette in Washington, D.C.: when millions are gathered before their television sets waiting for the president to speak, it is impolite to delay him with banal pleasantries on the way to the podium, even if it does make you feel like your importance is validated by the gesture. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:09 pm: Timeless Principle #6: Ronald Reagan, for all his skills in oratory, did two terrible things to the tradition of presidential rhetoric. One was creating the cliched tradition that all speeches have to end, “And God bless the United States of America.” Really, presidents didn’t do it that way before—you can look it up.
The other is the Lenny Skutnik cliche: lining the presidential box, next to the First Lady, with what are essentially political props. The tradition has gone too far to be changeable, but … this is part of the Reagan legacy.

That’s enough of the timeless. I will weigh in from time to time, Tweet-scale, as the speech unfolds. —James Fallows

9:08 pm: Timeless Principle #5: It’s always worth listening for the way a president ends the sentence that begins, “And so I can report to you that the State of the Union is ….”  They’re all variants of “strong,” of course, but the variations include a lot of art. —James Fallows

9:07 pm: Timeless Principle #4: One of the stagecraft delights of this speech is whether the president can mousetrap the other party into cheering when they don’t want to. There are certain lines for which everyone has to stand and cheer. The easiest gimme of this sort is any sentence ending “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.” So the real coup is when a president can end a sentence that way, pretty much obliging everyone to stand and cheer—havingbegun​ the sentence with something they don’t really like. E.g., “Our military now includes people regardless of what God they worship, or whom they love—and that’s why they’re the greatest fighting for in the history of the world!" —James Fallows

9:06 pm: Every year at this time, I hope that a sitting president will take this opportunity to court a part of the nation that is almost always ignored: those of us rooting for politics to be leavened with humor or self-concious absurdity. What would Andy Kaufman do? How would T.J.Miller and Cash Levy approach a State of the Union? The effect would be to undercut the Cult of the Presidency that Gene Healy has written about so eloquently, to amuse a portion of the nation, and to rankle the sensibilities of those who gush about the “pageantry” and “pomp and circumstance” of this speech. President Obama’s recent appearances on the Marc Maron podcast and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee gave me a small measure of hope that he would at least gesture in this direction (perhaps by converting all dollar figures in the speech into Bitcoin, but not acknowledging that there is anything unusual in doing so). Alas, the advance text suggests that this will be a sober speech, one summed up afterward with platitudes and breezy speculation about what it means for his legacy. “This is vintage Obama,” a commentator on CBS is saying even as I type. In other words, the absurdity will once again be unintentional tonight. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:05 pm: Specific Obama Principle #3: This is a politician, candidate, and leader for whom oratorical eloquence has been tremendously important. But (as explained three years ago) his eloquence is unusual in that it is so rarely quotable.​ It’s more paragraph-scale, or speech-scale eloquence, rather than the distinctiveness of any given phrase. George W. Bush was a much less accomplished orator (among other things) than Barack Obama, but Bush is known for at least one SOTU phrase, “axis of evil.” I submit that even students of politics can’t easily recall a specific ​phrase​ from Obama’s time in office. (“Not red states, or blue states, but the United States of America” from his 2004 Boston convention speech doesn’t count.)

9:04 pm: As the president lays out his vision for the future, he'll be making the case that Democratic values must guide America in the coming years. Both Democratic presidential candidates are, to a certain degree, running on Obama's record. Tonight, Hillary Clinton showed support for one issue the president is expected to heavily address, and one that sets her record apart from that of rival Bernie Sanders: support for gun control. Just before the speech, her official Twitter account promoted an essay written by a Sandy Hook mother, who describes how the empty seat at the SOTU is reflective of the empty chair "our family has to live with ... every day." The essay plainly states Clinton's pitch: "Barack Obama started the work—and I believe Hillary Clinton will finish it." —Nora Kelly

9:03 pm: Michelle Obama has arrived at the First Lady’s box where she’s joined by 23 individuals invited by the White House to attend the State of the Union address. The guests reveal the broader themes that Obama will likely touch on, such as criminal-justice reform, gun control, and immigration. One seat will remain empty for the victims of gun violence. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:02 pm: Timeless Principle #2: Every president says that every State of the Union address is going to be “different.” More “thematic.” Less “like a laundry list.” In reality, the speeches are almost all the same. President Obama says that this speech will be “different.” We’ll see. —James Fallows

9:00 pm: Timeless Principle #1: These speeches are longer and more detailed (which sometimes means more boring) than usual speeches, and that’s for a reason. From a political and governmental point of view, this is less a speech than a budget and power-sharing document. For the rest of the budget-setting year, parts of the government, and even foreign governments, make much of whether they have an appropriate sentence in the speech, or not. (When I was laboring on these back in the Carter administration, there was a several-hour fight over whether to include a sentence about Bangladesh.)
Related principle #1A: This is the only political speech in which people really note the things that are not said. A country that’s not mentioned, a program that’s cut out—in normal speeches, brevity and cuts would be in the service of getting more swiftly to your point. In this speech it’s uniquely possible to offend (even unintentionally) by omission. —James Fallows

8:59 pm: Six Supreme Court justices are in attendance, the same six who have made it to the last few of these: Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. —Russell Berman

8:58 pm: Tonight marks Paul Ryan's first time as House speaker sitting behind the president as he delivers his final State of the Union, a reminder of how much changed in the wake of a Republican leadership shakeup. As Ryan attempts to set a new tone for his party, it will be interesting to see how he responds to Obama's appeals. —Clare Foran

8:56 pm: Here we go again! In days of yore, I cranked out some after-the-fact annotated State of the Union transcripts: in 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and back into the mists of the G.W. Bush administration.

That was then! Ready to join into the collaborative project of The Atlantic’s liveblog this year. Will kick off with a few of the timeless principles of State of the Union-ology. —James Fallows

8:55 pm: Speaker Paul Ryan may have tried to take Joe Biden's job in 2012 as the GOP vice presidential nominee, but they've been chatty and laughing for the last several minutes behind the rostrum as they wait for the president to enter the House chamber. —Russell Berman

8:52 pm: This White House has delighted in taking its message directly to voters, minimizing the filtering effects of reporters and media outlets. Last year, it released the full text of the State of the Union on Medium, and it’s just done so again tonight. You can read it here. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:51 pm: As we've mentioned, the president is not expected to deliver the typical "laundry list" of proposals tonight, cognizant that few of them stand a chance with Republicans in Congress. But one issue he is expected to mention is criminal-justice reform. Advocates for that issue have been told he'll devote "substantial" time to calling for an end to mass incarceration and other justice reform issues. —Russell Berman

8:49 pm: The president’s remarks will likely resonate on the campaign trail after tonight, but only a handful of presidential candidates will be in attendance. Among them, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who will be campaigning in New Hampshire, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul decided to opt out of the address. —Priscilla Alvarez

8:47 pm: There are 18 offices in the presidential line of succession, 16 of which have incumbents eligible to succeed. They run from Vice President Joe Biden all the way to the newest cabinet office, the secretary of homeland security. And it’s Jeh Johnson who drew the short straw this evening. He’s the ‘designated survivor’—the odd man out, poised to take the reins of government should something catastrophic happen at the Capitol. As it happens, though, Johnson can’t even take solace in performing a vital democratic function as he sits the speech out at an undisclosed location. Senator Orrin Hatch, the president pro tempore of the Senate, won’t be at the speech, either. Hatch ranks third, and at 81, would be the oldest man, and the first Mormon, ever to assume the presidency. —Yoni Appelbaum

The most powerful man in the world is running out of time. Tonight, the sergeant-at-arms will proclaim President Obama’s arrival to the speaker of the House for the last time, inaugurating 12 months of final occasions. But even as a crowded field fights to replace him, Obama isn’t yet ready to cede the stage.

In his final State of the Union address, the president will pursue two goals that exist in tension with each other. He will try to persuade Congress to act on a series of issues—gun control, immigration reform, the minimum wage, trade deals, criminal-justice reform—that he has been unable to persuade it to address for the past seven years. This is the standard formula for a State of the Union, often derided as more a laundry list than an act of oratory.

But the White House has promised that this speech will be different. As my colleague Russell Berman writes, the White House has promised that it will look at how far the country has come in the past seven years, and deliver a vision of where it must go next. It is an attempt by Obama to define his legacy, before he’s even done creating it.

The guest-list for the speech reflects that tension. It includes invitees like Jim Obergefell, whose name is now synonymous with the legalization of same-sex marriage. And it also includes those like Ryan Reyes, whose partner was slain in San Bernardino, there to underline the president’s emphasis on the toll of gun violence.

This is what presidents do, as they feel time slipping away. They plan their libraries. They take their victory laps. And they strive against the setting sun to attain the goals that have eluded them.

There are other ways of framing tonight’s address. Obama addresses a Congress that is increasingly concerned with the global challenges facing the United States. American forces are actively engaged in the struggle against ISIS. Last week, North Korea claimed to detonate a hydrogen bomb. Hours before the speech, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps seized 10 American sailors. The White House says there will be no explicit reference to that latest incident, but the welfare of those Navy personnel will surely be on the mind of the president, and of all those in attendance.

They’ll also be on the mind of Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina and rising star of the Republican Party, who will deliver the GOP response to Obama’s address. In prepared excerpts released this afternoon, she charged that “the president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words.” She highlighted domestic challenges, including “a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities.” And she claimed that Americans are “facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th” but that “this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it.”

The speech is also the latest entry in a two-century-old tradition. You can use our interactive tools to explore the shifting language of these communications, and to map the evolution of their geographic focus.

Follow along here as we liveblog the speech, adding in context and commentary as it unfolds. —Yoni Appelbaum