Obama delivers his 2015 State of the Union address.

Obama delivers his 2015 State of the Union address. Mandel Ngan / AP

What to Expect From Obama's Last State of the Union Address

He'll focus on a big-picture vision for the country's future—with some plans for how America can get there.

Late last year, Pres­id­ent Obama sat down with his top aides to dis­cuss his last State of the Uni­on ad­dress. And he made it clear that he didn’t want his fi­nale to be any­thing like those of past pres­id­en­cies.

In a pre­view video re­leased last week, Obama said the ad­dress will fo­cus on “what we all need to do to­geth­er in the years to come: the big things that will guar­an­tee an even stronger, bet­ter, more pros­per­ous Amer­ica for our kids.”

The pres­id­ent’s fi­nal State of the Uni­on will be broad­er, more about his vis­ion for the coun­try in his last year in of­fice and bey­ond. Here’s what to look for:

It won’t be a laun­dry list. Seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials de­scribe the speech as “non­tra­di­tion­al,” in that the White House won’t pre­scribe a policy wish list for Con­gress. Still, there are a few le­gis­lat­ive goals the pres­id­ent hopes to ac­com­plish in his last year in of­fice, and they’re ripe for com­prom­ise.

He’ll likely make a re­newed pitch for the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, the Asia-Pa­cific trade deal Con­gress fast-tracked with bi­par­tis­an sup­port last sum­mer. Con­gress must rat­i­fy the pact, reached by the United States and 11 oth­er coun­tries.

There are oth­er bi­par­tis­an bright spots: A cadre of un­likely bed­fel­lows, from tea-party Sen. Mike Lee of Utah to lib­er­al Sen. Patrick Leahy of Ver­mont, sup­port a crim­in­al-justice-re­form bill that would re­duce man­dat­ory min­im­ums for a slew of drug crimes. Obama has pushed for crim­in­al-justice re­form over the last year, and White House press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est in a brief­ing on Monday spe­cific­ally men­tioned the is­sue as one that would be on the State of the Uni­on agenda, telling re­port­ers that the White House “has worked hard to try to nur­ture the bi­par­tis­an agree­ment that will be re­quired to pass that le­gis­la­tion.”

Obama could also tout his pro­pos­al to spend $500 mil­lion to im­prove ac­cess to men­tal-health care. The ini­ti­at­ive, un­veiled in his pack­age of gun-con­trol ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions last week, rep­res­en­ted his an­swer to the GOP’s prom­ise to fix the na­tion’s broken men­tal-health sys­tem. “For those in Con­gress who so of­ten rush to blame men­tal ill­ness for mass shoot­ings as a way of avoid­ing ac­tion on guns,” Obama said dur­ing his tear­ful an­nounce­ment last week, “here’s your chance to sup­port these ef­forts. Put your money where your mouth is.”

He’ll try to frame the elec­tion. This is the earli­est State of the Uni­on that Obama has giv­en, and the earli­est on the cal­en­dar for any pres­id­ent since Ger­ald Ford in 1977. In part, it’s a ploy by the White House to get ahead of the loom­ing primary sea­son and frame the nar­rat­ive be­fore the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. He wants to sup­port fel­low Demo­crats, of course, but he’s also pledged to back only can­did­ates who sup­port gun re­form. Ex­pect Obama to con­trast his “com­mon-sense” at­ti­tudes on gun con­trol with Re­pub­lic­ans—whom White House of­fi­cials have slammed for be­ing in the grip of the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation—and make a pitch for his ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders on guns. To fur­ther get the mes­sage, look to first lady Michelle Obama’s guest box, where one seat will be left empty to hon­or vic­tims of gun vi­ol­ence.

It won’t be a vic­tory lap. Obama will mainly fo­cus on the fu­ture. But he’s proud of his ac­com­plish­ments dur­ing his time in of­fice, and he’ll be sure to men­tion them: a nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an, thawed re­la­tions with Cuba, a glob­al cli­mate-change agree­ment, de­clin­ing un­em­ploy­ment, in­creased health care cov­er­age, and new en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions. In an email to sup­port­ers, White House Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough name-checked achieve­ments, but kept the fo­cus for­ward. “What we have left to do is big­ger than any one policy ini­ti­at­ive or new bill in Con­gress,” Mc­Donough wrote in the email. “This is about who we are, where we’re headed, and what kind of coun­try we want to be.”

He’ll try to re­as­sure Amer­ic­ans that he’s got the na­tion’s se­cur­ity un­der con­trol. Obama closed out last year scram­bling to de­fend his strategy on fight­ing the Is­lam­ic State. He may of­fer an­oth­er de­fense of that strategy, or even re­mind the pub­lic that Con­gress has yet to pass an au­thor­iz­a­tion of mil­it­ary force for the war against the ter­ror­ist group. It could be a tough sell: 64 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans say they dis­ap­prove of the way the pres­id­ent is deal­ing with the Is­lam­ic State, ac­cord­ing to a CNN/ORC poll last month.

An­oth­er na­tion­al se­cur­ity item Obama has yet to cross off his agenda: clos­ing the pris­on at Guantanamo Bay. Seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials ac­know­ledge that while there’s “not a clear path for­ward with Con­gress” on the is­sue, he still plans to close it “un­der his watch.” He could an­nounce the long-awaited exit plan, which the White House said it was “in the fi­nal stages of draft­ing” back in Ju­ly, and ap­peal to law­makers to shut­ter it. “Ul­ti­mately, to ac­com­plish the goal of clos­ing it,” Earn­est told re­port­ers Monday, “we’re go­ing to need Con­gress to re­move some obstacles that have pre­ven­ted it thus far.”