Ahead of speech, Obama has regrets over U.S. political divisions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama voiced regret for failing to unite Washington since taking office on a wave of hope in 2009, as he prepared to give a State of the Union speech on Tuesday to launch his final year in the White House.

Asked about his inability to heal America’s political divisions, Obama told NBC’s “Today” show, “It’s a regret.”

The president planned to speak optimistically about America’s future in his speech in Congress, one of his few remaining chances to capture and hold the attention of millions of Americans before the Nov. 8 election of a new president who will take office next January.

The Democratic president will give his final State of the Union address as campaign rhetoric for November’s presidential election intensifies with candidates fighting over illegal immigrants, wage inequality and violence.

In a reflective mood, Obama said in the NBC interview that he could have done a better job talking to the country during his presidency so he could “communicate constantly and with confidence.”

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“Particularly during times of stress, the American people need to hear from their president in terms of what it is exactly that we’re trying to do. Things that I’ve done well during the campaign I’ve not always done well as president.” he said.

Aides said Obama will try to generate support for issues he has been unable to resolve such as a Pacific trade pact, tighter gun laws and closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Scheduled for 9 p.m. ET, Obama’s speech is expected to stick to themes he hopes will define his legacy.

Obama is likely to tout last year’s Iran nuclear deal and improved U.S.-Cuba relations as achievements, while urging Congress to back criminal justice reform, support the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and close the U.S military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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He will also likely discuss the U.S. fight against Islamic State, which has generated criticism from Republicans as being too meager.

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“There is one thing that we hope to hear from the president, and that is a comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS,” House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters, using an acronym for the militant group that has taken over large areas of Syria and Iraq.

“Americans are so anxious right now about their security, about what’s going on around the world,” said Ryan, a Republican.

Aides say Obama plans in his last year in office to make good on a 2008 election campaign promise to close Guantanamo prison, which has housed foreign terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Obama took a swipe at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail where the billionaire real-estate tycoon has derided illegal immigrants.

“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, that does work together and doesn’t try to divide us, that isn’t looking for simplistic solutions and scapegoating,” Obama said in answer to a question about Trump.

Asked whether he could imagine Trump as president giving his own State of the Union address, Obama said: “I can imagine it in a Saturday Night skit,” referring to the late-night Saturday Night Live television comedy show. But he added that “anything’s possible. And I think, you know, we shouldn’t be complacent.”

First lady Michelle Obama will host people in her seating area during the speech who reflect the president’s priorities. This year’s guests include Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella and a Syrian refugee who lives in Michigan.

Additional reporting by Megan Cassella and Alistair Bell; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Howard Goller