Ahead of speech, Obama has regrets over US political divisions

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Obama Takes a Stroll Before Final State of the Union

(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.

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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.

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Ahead of speech, Obama has regrets over US political divisions
President Obama mostly focused on economic issues, taxes and the middle class in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He also discussed foreign policy and called for congress to authorize the use of force against Islamic State militants. (Jan. 21)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands after delivering the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama, center, speaks with Secretary of State John Kerry as he enters the House Chamber to deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Obama declared the U.S. economy healed and said the nation now must begin work to close the gap between the well-off and the wanting. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with an attendee as he arrives to deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Obama declared the U.S. economy healed and said the nation now must begin work to close the gap between the well-off and the wanting. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
US President Barack Obama departs following his State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. lawmakers pay tribute to the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks by holding up pencils during the State of the Union address by U.S. President Barack Obama on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)
US lawmakers pay tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks by holding up pencils during the State of the Union address by US President Barack Obama, before a joint session of Congress on January 20, 2015 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, bottom row second left, astronaut Scott Kelly, top row from right, aid worker Alan Gross, a former Cuban prisoner, and his wife Judy Gross applaud while listening to U.S. President Barack Obama, not pictured, deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol with in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Obama declared the U.S. economy healed and said the nation now must begin work to close the gap between the well-off and the wanting. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C., applauds as she listens to U.S. President Barack Obama, not pictured, deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Obama declared the U.S. economy healed and said the nation now must begin work to close the gap between the well-off and the wanting. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama, front, waves as he arrives to deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress while U.S. Vice President Joseph 'Joe' Biden, second right, and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, right, applaud at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Obama declared the U.S. economy healed and said the nation now must begin work to close the gap between the well-off and the wanting. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to including attempts to address income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Obama declared the U.S. economy healed and said the nation now must begin work to close the gap between the well-off and the wanting. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden applauds and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listens. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama presented a broad agenda on income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. 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. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama listens to applause as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, applaud in the background. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama arrives for the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)
Alan Gross (C), the US contractor released from prison in Cuba last month, is applauded during US President Barack Obama's State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. CapitolJanuary 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. Also pictured are Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) (R-OH). (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Alan Gross (C), recently freed after being held in Cuba since 2009, pumps his fist after being recognized by U.S. President Barack Obama during the State of the Union speech in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda including attempts to address income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. Also pictured are Dr. Pranav Shetty of Washington, DC, Judy Gross, and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to including attempts to address income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to including attempts to address income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama prepares to give his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama waves before giving his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker of Ohio listen as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Barack Obama waves before giving his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Vice President Joe Biden applaud (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Barack Obama gives a copy of his State of the Union address to Vice President Joe Biden, prior to delivering it before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.House Speaker John Boehner of hio is at right. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to including attempts to address income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama is greeted on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, before his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama (R) departs following his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill January 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama arrives to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)
US President Barack Obama (C) arrives to deliver the State of The Union address on January 20, 2015, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama greets House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Vice President Joe Bien on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, before his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress . (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Barack Obama hugs Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, before giving his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
U.S. President Barack Obama greets attendees as he arrives to deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Obama declared the U.S. economy healed and said the nation now must begin work to close the gap between the well-off and the wanting. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) talks with Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) before the start of U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Gen. Raymond Odierno (L) talks with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) before the start of U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to including attempts to address income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (C) shakes hands before the start of the State of the Union speech in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda including attempts to address income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner await the arrival of President Barack Obama for the State of The Union address on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol before U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda including attempts to address income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rep.Paul Ryam R-Wis. waits on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress . (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) wait for the start of U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to including attempts to address income inequality and making it easier for Americans to afford college education and child care. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Attorney General Eric Holder talks with Rep.Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, before President Baraclk Obama's State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., center, talks with Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., left, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Alan Gross waves from the first lady's box before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Chief Justice John Roberts arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, for President Barack Obama;s State of the Union addre. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell waits for the start of the State of the Union address by President Barack Obama Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)
First lady Michelle Obama acknowledges applause on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. Front rowm from left are, Astrid Muhammad, Anthony Mendez, Mrs. Obama, and Jill Biden. Second row, from left are, Pranav Shetty, Judy Gross, Alan Gross and Scott Kelly. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US First Lady Michelle Obama arrives for the State of the Union address by husband US President Barack Obama at the US Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, center, attends the State of the Union address by U.S. President Barack Obama, not pictured, to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Obama declared the U.S. economy healed and said the nation now must begin work to close the gap between the well-off and the wanting. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama's motorcade makes its way along Independence Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol prior to the State of the Union address to Congress, January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Drew Angerer-Pool/Getty Images)
Members of the media set up for television broadcasts in National Statuary Hall before U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. President Obama will focus on the gap between wealthy Americans and middle- and lower income households Tuesday night in Washington when he lays out his plans for what the White House is calling the 'fourth quarter' of his presidency. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
U.S. Capitol police officers stand on guard in the Capitol Building Rotunda before U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. President Obama will focus on the gap between wealthy Americans and middle- and lower income households Tuesday night in Washington when he lays out his plans for what the White House is calling the 'fourth quarter' of his presidency. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images`
Capitol police gather at the Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2015 before US President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: The sun sets behind the U.S. Capitol ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Later this evening, Obama will deliver his sixth and final State of the Union adress to the nation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. Capitol Police Officer John O'Shea (C) checks passes while standing guard ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address at the Capitol building January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Later this evening, Obama will deliver his sixth and final State of the Union adress to the nation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The Washington Monument is seen on the eve of the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama will on Tuesday demand a hostile Congress increase taxes on the rich, in a State of the Union address that sets the stage for coming election battles. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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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."

"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.

ISLAMIC STATE

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

"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.

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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.

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