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A Primer to President Obama's Final State of the Union

Today marks President Obama’s final State of the Union address. Here is a reading guide on some of the issues you may hear about in the president’s address — and on the campaign trail.

President Obama delivers his final State of the Union address this evening, and all signs point to a shift from tradition as he prepares a speech more suited to the campaign trail than to Congress. He framed his agenda in a message to supporters last Wednesday.

"What I want to focus on in this State of the Union address [is] not just the remarkable progress we've made, not just what I want to get done in the year ahead, but what we all need to do together in the years to come," said the President.

How has the administration delivered on its promises? We've compiled some of the best reporting on Obama's tenure in office. See something we missed? Submit your suggestions in the comments.


The New Border: Illegal Immigration's Shifting Frontier, ProPublica, December 2012

In early January, the U.S. began raids to deport Central American families. This is an up-close, on-the-ground look at what has become the immigration story today: the influx of Central Americans, especially women and children, and resulting questions of who gets asylum or deported.

The Shame of America's Family Detention Camps, The New York Times Magazine, February 2015

President Obama has made efforts to put a "gentler face on U.S. immigration policy," but in 2015, the administration deported a record 2 million immigrants. This piece examines the evolving U.S. policy on detention centers as the number of Central American migrants seeking asylum continues to balloon.

Homeland Insecurity, Texas Observer, December 2015

Politicians have called for more boots on the ground at the border throughout President Obama's tenure in office. According to this Texas Observer investigation, internal corruption has plagued the Department of Homeland Security for years. And border patrol officers face little to no punishment for alleged crimes such as smuggling and bribery.

Foreign Policy

The Long Fuse of Obama's Anti-ISIS Strategy, Foreign Policy, May 2015

Foreign Policy examines U.S. military operations against ISIS and the broader strategic problem that the militant group poses to the region and America's allies there.

More:Balancing Terror and Reality in State of the Union Address, The New York Times, January 2016

'Incommunicado' Forever: Gitmo Detainee's Case Stalled For 2,477 Days And Counting, ProPublica, May 2015

The Senate torture report disclosed the decision to hold Abu Zubaydah "incommunicado" in December 2014, but the judicial inaction in his case didn't get much attention. This in-depth look at Zubaydah's case highlights why some of those who helped establish Gitmo want it closed.

More:In Gitmo Opinion, Two Versions of Reality

Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will, New York Times, May 2012

The Times delves into the administration's drone strategy, which puts Obama — who began his presidency with promises to end harsh interrogation tactics and shutter Guantanamo Bay — "at the helm of a top secret 'nominations' process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical."

Drone Strikes Test Legal Grounds for War on Terror, ProPublica, February 2013

Obama officials have cited legal self-defense — and a "flexible understanding of 'imminence'" — to justify targeted killings. But legal scholars say the government's authority to detain and kill militants may be undermined depending on how you define the target.

More: How Obama's Drone Death Claims Stack Up

For ProPublica's complete coverage of these topics visit: The Drone War and Attacks in Europe.

How Will the U.S. Absorb Thousands of Syrian Refugees?, Bloomberg Politics, November 2015

The conversation about immigration has shifted to Syrian refugees in recent months. This Bloomberg interactive explores the economics of refugee resettlement in the United States.

More: Q&A: Can a Divided Europe Handle the Refugee Crisis?

Gun Control

How the Gun Control Debate Ignores Black Lives, ProPublica, November 2015

The framing of the gun control tends to hinge on the horror of mass shootings, but should it? Lawmakers and activists continually ignore a program that has proven effective in saving lives. Why aren't we using it?

More:Why Counting Mass Shootings is a Bad Way to Understand Gun Violence in America

State Gun Laws Enacted in the Year After Newtown, The New York Times, December 2013

In the wake of the 2012 shooting at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary, Obama called for " meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this." Almost every state took action — but nearly two-thirds of gun laws passed in the year after Newtown loosened restrictions or expanded gun rights. This interactive tracks those laws by state.

More: Mass Shootings Do Little to Change State Gun Laws

Taking on the NRA, The New Yorker, October 2015

The National Rifle Association spends a lot of money. Between 2000 and 2010 they spent 15 times as much as gun control advocacy groups on lobbying. But the gun rights group's politically active membership is their greatest asset.

More: Is the Gun Lobby's Power Overstated?

How Much Could Obama's Gun Moves Affect Gun Violence? Nobody Knows, ProPublica, January 2016

President Obama unveiled executive actions to curb gun violence in early January, including expanded background checks by gun sellers. But what effect will these policies have? As ATF spokesman Corey Ray wrote, the background check proposal "isn't new regulation, the requirements are already in place and enforcement is ongoing."

Jobs and Economy

The Rise of Corporate Impunity, ProPublica, April 2014

More than 1,000 people, including top banking executives, were prosecuted after the savings and loan scandals of the '80s. But after the most recent financial crisis, only one man went to jail — the CEO of a second-tier financial firm.

Obama has overseen more job creation than both Bushes combined — but less than other recent presidents,Washington Post, June 2015

The Obama administration touts job creation as one of its big successes. This data visualization shows that while Obama's job numbers are better than his predecessor, his "track record has been middling over the past few administrations."

Why a poor Southern city's only hope was a Chinese company moving in, Washington Post, December 2015

Low-skilled workers, once the Deep South's weakness, are now drawing foreign companies to the region. States in the Deep South pitch "not just tax breaks but low costs and anemic union participation." This is an in-depth look at the effect one Chinese company had on a struggling city in Alabama.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal Explained, The New York Times, May 2015

A primer on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which this writer calls the "most ambitious trade deal since the North America Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s."

More: Failure of Obama's Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Could Hurt U.S. Influence in Asia

Healthcare and Reproductive Rights

Judging Obamacare: How Do We Know If It's a Success or Failure, ProPublica, March 2014

How do we know if Obamacare is working? This piece gives an overview of ways to gauge the wins and losses of the Affordable Care Act.

We Mapped the Uninsured. You'll Notice a Pattern., The New York Times, October 2015

The largest predictor of how many people are uninsured is Medicaid expansion. This NYT Upshot data visualization shows that the people who are still uninsured under the Affordable Care Act "tend to live in the South, and they tend to be poor."

More: Medicaid Programs Drowning in Backlog

A Showdown Year for Reproductive Rights, ProPublica, January 2016

This year is shaping up to be the most turbulent – and potentially disruptive – year for reproductive rights in decades. This piece looks at some of the important events in the coming year, including one Supreme Court case that will decide the fate of contraception coverage under Obamacare.

For ProPublica's coverage of the Affordable Care Act visit our series page, "Obamacare and You."


'Somebody Intervened in Washington', ProPublica, December 2015

With national attention focused on the Keystone pipeline and offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, a battle was being waged for control of a piece of pristine Alaskan wilderness. In February of 2015, the oil lobby won that battle.

Obama Might Actually Be the Environmental President, New York Magazine, May 2013

Many assume Obama's record on climate change is a failure, but has he made more progress than people realize? This piece looks at the state of climate affairs through Obama's first term in office.

More: The Sunniest Climate-Change Story You've Ever Read

More: Obama: Climate agreement 'best chance we have' to save the planet

Campaign Finance

The Man Behind Citizens United is Just Getting Started, Mother Jones, May/June 2011

An introduction to James Bopp, the lawyer working to "dismantle practically every facet of campaign finance regulation."

The NRA's brazen shell game with donations, Yahoo News, April 2015

One example of the "wild, wild west" of political money is the NRA's diversion of donations to its PAC. "An NRA member might contribute to the organization because she admires its work on behalf of hunters‚ ... But this same donor may vehemently oppose the candidates endorsed in federal elections."

Rapid Rise in Super PACs Dominated by Single Donors, ProPublica, April 2015

Changes in campaign finance laws during the Obama administration are having a significant effect on how campaigns operate. The amount of single-donor super PACs quadrupled in the 2014 election cycle, and the trend is expected to continue in 2016.

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