ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The news today that about 10 American sailors strayed into Iranian waters and were taken into custody of Iran comes as President Obama prepares to deliver his last State of the Union address. White House officials confirmed the sailors' detention during a briefing on the speech. The White House says the president wants to set an optimistic tone in his remarks tonight. Here's how former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau previewed it on Morning Edition today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JON FAVREAU: This is the "Morning In America" speech in response to the malaise speech the Republican candidates have been giving the entire primary season.
SHAPIRO: Tonight's primetime speech is one of Obama's last big chances to make the case for his own legacy and shape the debate among those who are running to replace him. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House with a preview.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi Ari.
SHAPIRO: The White House says this is going to be an untraditional State of the Union address. I'm sure they weren't referring to today's breaking news when they said that. What did they mean by that?
HORSLEY: Well, Ari, you've sat through a lot of these speeches, and I think what they hope they mean is that it's going to have some staying power. You know, if you look back at all the memorable speeches this president has given during his time in office, there's probably not a State of the Union that makes the top 10. So often there's just not a lot of room for poetry or even a coherent argument in these speeches. Instead they tend to be sort of laundry lists of programmatic proposals that the president wants Congress to take up. Obama has said he wants to get away from that in this speech. After all, Congress, under the control of the GOP, is not likely to approve much of his program anyway. So instead, he's planning to take a step back and offer a sort of big picture of the challenges and what he sees as the opportunities facing country.
SHAPIRO: Still a fair amount of campaign politics in this speech though. It is, after all, a presidential election year.
HORSLEY: Oh, of course. I mean, as his former speechwriter Jon Favreau said, this is a chance to paint Obama's own record in the warm, glowing colors - the way President Reagan's "Morning In America" campaign ad did - at a time when Republican candidates have been running a pretty negative campaign about what they see as the sorry state of the union, both in terms of the economy and security. Obviously, both sides have evidence they can call on to make their case. You can expect the president to talk tonight about the best couple of years of job growth we've had since late 1990s, record auto sales last year after he rescued GM and Chrysler. Republicans instead will focus on lackluster wage growth and mounting concerns in the American public about terrorism.
SHAPIRO: Scott, is there a risk of the president sounding too rosy if he gives a wholly optimistic speech, especially with news breaking about American sailors in Iranian custody right now?
HORSLEY: Well, certainly. And this is a challenge that the president's faced, really, throughout his tenure and even more so in the supercharged political atmosphere of an election year. And Republicans have a strategic rationale for highlighting the president's shortcomings and trying to tie those shortcomings to his fellow Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, who served in Obama's cabinet. Democrats, on other hand who are running for office want to, on the one hand, celebrate successes of their president but not handcuff themselves to a person whose approval rating is still, you know, languishing below 50 percent. Now, keep in mind, Ari, this is a president who burst on the national scene all those years ago promising to bridge the partisan divide. Instead, that divide is deeper than ever, and Obama told NBC News's "Today" show this morning that is one of his regrets.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")
BARACK OBAMA: Politics in Washington are so much more divided than the American people are. And part of what I want to do in this last address is to remind people, you know what? We've got a lot of good things going for us and if we can get our politics right, it turns out that we're not as divided on the ideological spectrum as people make us out to be.
SHAPIRO: Well, Scott, the president is sticking with one State of Union tradition. He's invited some special guests to watch from the first lady's box. Who's going to be there?
HORSLEY: Yeah, this is another tradition that began with Ronald Reagan inviting ordinary and not so ordinary Americans to attend the speech and help to illustrate the president's points. Obama has a lot of folks to choose from tonight including an empty seat representing the victims of gun violence. Also in the first lady's box, one of the young Americans who tackled a gunman on that Paris-bound train, a Syrian refugee who's now living in the Michigan, one of the first women to graduate from Army Ranger School and the named plaintiff in the same-sex marriage case decided by the Supreme Court last summer. The president botched his name in the Rose Garden. This gives him another chance to say Jim Obergefell.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter). Finally, Scott, do you think they're scrambling for a rewrite given that these sailors are in Iranian custody right now?
HORSLEY: You know, news of this broke as I and some other reporters were getting a briefing on the speech, and the White House was keeping mum. I don't think they want to say too much until the sailors' fate is maybe a little bit more secure.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Scott Horsley speaking with us from the White House.
HORSLEY: My pleasure Ari.
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