Why Obama will break the mold for Tuesday's address

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
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President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.

President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union Address on Tuesday night and he is expected to blow up the mold and skip the usual laundry list of policy proposals. Instead, he is expected to present a vision of the nation very different from the one offered by the Republican candidates for president, especially billionaire Donald Trump.

Expect the president to talk about a nation creating jobs at a remarkably consistent pace and on the cusp of faster growth, the recovery of the once-disastrous auto industry, progress in fighting climate change and enacting stronger gun controls while extending health coverage to more Americans and shutting down the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In short, Obama will be making a case for his own legacy as president and subtly urging Americans to continue the path he set by electing a Democratic successor, most likely former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Obama of course will not make a direct case for Clinton. He has pledged to stay out of the nominating fight and has also met with Clinton's left wing challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

But Obama's goal will clearly be to convince voters that the scary picture painted by Trump and other Republican candidates of an America beset by terrorism, threatened by illegal immigration and stuck in an economic rut is not an accurate one. Obama directly confronted Trump in a lengthy appearance on NBC's "TODAY" show from the White House on Tuesday, dismissing the real estate mogul's chances and denigrating his policies.

Asked if he felt responsible for Trump's rise, Obama demurred. "Talk to me if he wins," he said. "Then we'll have a conversation about how responsible I feel about it." Obama added that he did not believe Trump could draw broad national support. "I'm pretty confident that the overwhelming majority of Americans are looking for the kind of politics that does feed our hopes and not our fears," Obama said. He added that the only way he can imagine Trump delivering a State of the Union Address is in a "Saturday Night [Live] skit."

Obama, in perhaps his last chance to capture a big national TV audience, will have a difficult task turning around sour American attitudes both toward him and the direction of the nation. The president's job-approval rating hit its lowest level in more than a year in December at just 43 percent, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. That survey also showed 70 percent of Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track, the highest number since August 2014.

The figures are not hard to explain. The survey came after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, turmoil in global markets and against a backdrop of good job growth but stagnant wages for middle-income workers. There is not much Obama can do in a single speech to reverse these dismal numbers.

Presidents often get a lift in the polls following the State of the Union speech but that bounce is usually short-lived absent real changes in economic conditions. And there is not much Obama can do about the economy in his final year in office.

The president would like to see Congress approve his major Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal this year but the odds of that happening are fairly narrow. Many Republicans, including Trump and fellow GOP candidate Ted Cruz, have come out against the deal. So has Clinton. Cobbling together a congressional coalition to support the deal will be highly challenging, though not impossible.

Republicans and some Democrats would also like deliver at least some elements of tax reform in 2016 — specially the way the U.S. treats corporate income earned abroad — but that, too, could get swallowed up by election-year politics. The only real positive coming out of Congress for the economy in 2016 will be the absence of fights over a government shutdown and debt limit

The White House is certainly aware that they are not likely to get much through Congress this year. So the State of the Union will be much more about highlighting the positives already underway in the U.S. while arguing that deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, banning Muslims from entering the country and blocking all new efforts to regulate gun purchases will not make the country safer or more prosperous.

Ultimately, this State of the Union address is not likely to shift current political dynamics or give Obama a major lift. But at a minimum, Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, hope it will remind Americans that conditions are a great deal better than when Obama took office in 2009. And Democrats hope it will offer something of a mood-lifting antidote to the gloom and doom proffered by Republicans on the campaign trail.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.