Andrew BEATTY, Michael Mathes - For a decade President Barack Obama leaned on dazzling oratory to advance his politics. Now, in a bid to shape the 2016 election and his legacy, he’s turning off the teleprompter.

“He wants to do less talking at people and more talking with people,” said White House communications director Jen Psaki, sketching a new approach for Obama’s final year in the White House.

For sure, there will be more speeches and more soaring rhetoric. But Obama will increasingly use forum-style discussions to get his message across. That starts on Thursday in Louisiana when he debates his recent State of the Union address with voters.

Engaging unpredictable and often unsupportive members of the public is risky in America’s tightly scripted politics. But political gravity has caught up with Obama. The Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to allow many of his offerings to pass its lips. Presidential policy addresses will no longer carry the same executive weight, unless backed by the rare threat of unilateral action.

All the while, would-be successors to the presidency are wrenching the spotlight away. “The danger for a president in the last year of his presidency, with the Congress controlled by another party, is that he becomes irrelevant,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The White House wants to keep Obama relevant by, quite literally, changing the terms of the debate. Psaki pointed to a recent televised discussion on gun control as an example of things to come.

“He talked to a number of people who had strong disagreements with him, and that is something he has expressed to us he wants to do quite a bit more of,” she said. “He knows that helping to facilitate that dialogue is something that he can play a role in doing as president.”

By ditching the dais, Obama was better able to frame the debate on gun control, according to Hall Jamieson, putting across new lines of argument, in a more engaging way.

“I thought it was rhetorically important, I think it changed the terms of the debate.”

If future exchanges are similarly appealing, “he will pick up news coverage for them in ways that underscore his agenda,” she said. “It becomes a way of seeding the ground to make it more hospitable to a democratic Congress and a Democratic president.”

Presidential regrets

The recent televised gun debate - despite addressing a supercharged subject, in the midst of an ultra-partisan election campaign - was also notable for its civility.

That offers the White House a useful contrast to the bombast of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, but it might also allow Obama a final shot at his failed campaign promise to ease partisanship.

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency - that the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama told Congress and an audience of 31 million Tuesday.

“I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”

While not ending the Civil War or presiding over a tidal wave of socially defining legislation, Obama could provide a model for debate, according to Kathryn Olson, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“He has to get people talking to each other, that is going to be necessary but not sufficient for any kind of change in this country,” she said. “Showing people talking to each other - including him listening and talking to people - is import, it’s maybe his best chance to make a difference.”

Republican sharks circle Trump

Republicans square off in their latest US presidential debate Thursday, just 18 days before all-important first votes are cast in the nominations race, after a rising party star delivered an extraordinary rebuke to frontrunner Donald Trump.

Seven candidates will take the main stage in South Carolina, with six focused on how to knock the real-estate tycoon off his perch and finally bring the 2016 campaign to a debate about issues rather than obsession over Trump’s celebrity bombast.

South Carolina’s young, charismatic governor Nikki Haley, considered by some a potential vice presidential pick, essentially cleared the way for Trump’s rivals by attacking the rhetoric of the celebrity billionaire.

Her remarks - “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation” - were all the more potent as they came in the official Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday.

“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true,” she said pointedly.

The message marked political shots fired in the civil war roiling the Republican Party, specifically Trump’s outsider populism versus his rivals in the conservative establishment.

By picking Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, GOP leaders - who reportedly cleared the speech before she addressed the nation - were effectively announcing they had had it with Trump’s toxic brand of ethno-nationalism.

But Trump, who has relentlessly proven his savvy in the campaign, sought to deflect the criticism and turn Haley’s hammering into a positive.

“As far as I’m concerned, anger is OK. Anger and energy is what this country needs,” Trump told CNN in reacting to Haley’s remarks. “I like her, she’s a very nice woman, but she’s very weak on the subject of illegal immigration.”

The main debate kicks off around 9:00 pm (0200 GMT Friday), while three low-polling White House hopefuls compete in an undercard event three hours earlier. On the same day, Republicans in the House of Representatives gather in Baltimore, near the capital Washington, for their annual winter retreat.

Much of their closed-door discussion will focus on the congressional agenda during an election year, including how to improve the immigration system and defeat Islamic State extremists. But no doubt they also will be mapping out the paths to the presidency that various candidates may or may not be able to pursue successfully - and Trump should figure in those discussions.

‘Kardashian of politics’

There is an unquestionable paradox in the establishment drilling into the man who for months has led Republican polls by a substantial margin.

Critics warn he is a self-promoter who lacks the temperament or experience to be commander in chief. “He is the Kim Kardashian of politics,” former business executive Carly Fiorina, one of the low-polling rivals, told the Des Moines Register newspaper. “But this isn’t a reality show. It’s not entertainment. It’s deadly serious now.” The celebrity billionaire has ridden a wave of populist anger with Washington, frustration over the nation’s lackluster economic recovery, and fear about a growing terrorism threat.

The latest provocation by Iran, the seizure and then release of 10 US Navy sailors, is sure to fuel accusations from debate candidates that Obama’s weak foreign policy is leaving the world more dangerous. Trump set off a global firestorm by calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, and has pledged to deport millions of undocumented immigrants if elected.