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article imageObama tells U.S. to embrace time of 'extraordinary change'

By Andrew Beatty (AFP)     Jan 12, 2016 in Politics

President Barack Obama on Tuesday will tell Americans nervous about terror and the changing economy that they should not fear the future, in a farewell State of the Union address designed to draw sharp contrast with Republicans.

In the election-year address before he leaves office, Obama will hail a period of "extraordinary change" that is only set to quicken and which has the potential to "broaden opportunity, or widen inequality."

Attempting to cast himself as an optimistic foil to Republicans, who warn the country is going in the wrong direction after his seven years in office, Obama will say "America has been through big changes before."

"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."

Tuesday's primetime address is perhaps Obama's last big opportunity to sway a national audience and frame the 2016 election race.

Around 30 million viewers are expected to watch live, a nationwide audience that may only be matched in political terms during the Democratic nominating convention later this year.

But it risked being overshadowed by news that 10 US Navy personnel have been taken to an Iranian naval base in the Gulf.

The White House at dusk on January 12  2016
The White House at dusk on January 12, 2016
Mandel Ngan, AFP

Senior US officials said they had received assurances the crews would sail onwards come first light, but Republicans have held the crisis up as evidence that Obama was naive to engage with Tehran.

- Ditched laundry list -

As they try to limit the damage, Obama aides say the commander-in-chief will push ahead with an unorthodox speech that lifts the country's gaze beyond the next year, and beyond his presidency.

"Traditionally, State of the Unions -- a president gets up and they give a long laundry list of things that they want to accomplish legislatively," Obama himself said in a preview message.

"I want to identify three or four big ideas, three or four big things that we have to focus on."

The speech, in the works since the autumn, will mark achievements, from health care reform to gay rights to a pending trans-Pacific trade deal to the controversial nuclear deal with Iran.

But it will also focus on generational challenges like tackling partisan politics, economic inclusiveness, race, justice reform and defining America's role in the world.

"A lot of what we can do is to change the political environment and change people's attitudes and start a process where change begins to happen," Obama said.

"It's a relay race, and it's important you get started."

US Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid  Democrat of Nevada  speaks with State of the Union guests who ...
US Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, speaks with State of the Union guests who have significant student debt
Saul Loeb, AFP

It is a high-risk strategy for Obama who, with just a year left in office, could look cripplingly out of touch if he misjudges the nation's mood.

Amid poisoned politics, terror threats and middle-class malaise, some 67 percent of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, according to a recent Rasmussen poll.

While unemployment rates are low, the economy is growing and the tumult of the financial crisis has passed, wage growth is lackluster and the gap between rich and poor is cavernous.

"The president's record has often fallen far short of his soaring words," South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is expected to say in her rebuttal of Obama's address.

"As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels."

She will also cite "chaotic unrest in many of our cities" and "the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th."

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