WASHINGTON – It is telling that US President Barack Obama’s first two utterances of the term “national security” on Wednesday night came as he was explaining to Americans his plans to expand exports and freeze discretionary spending without jeopardizing their safety.
That’s because the overwhelming focus of Obama’s first State of the Union address – the annual pilgrimage the US president makes to Capitol Hill to lay out his policy priorities to Congress and the American people – was on domestic issues.
His top concern was clearly the economy, with jobs, financial reform, tax cuts, and even education, energy and healthcare presented through this prism. In comparison, he spent no more than 10 minutes of his 70-minute discourse on foreign policy and terrorism.
Even several of the countries and regions that were mentioned – Europe, China, India – came in comparisons to America’s own trade and infrastructure undertakings.
The Middle East peace process wasn’t mentioned once.
This was a State of the Union focused heavily on the Union – both the internal workings of the United States itself and an attempt to bring the parties and people together. The new initiatives were all domestic – a high-speed rail system, small business benefits, the budget freeze – and reflected Americans’ concerns about their economic well-being and Obama’s concern about his political well-being.
The speech came a week after a major Republican upset in a special Massachusetts election cost Obama his 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the US Senate, threatening the passage of his signature health care reform bill and reflecting approval ratings that have dropped below 50 percent.
The State of the Union address, by several accounts, was revised in light of the Massachusetts loss, and American foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum noted that the White House made an assessment that the economy was the public’s consuming worry.
“That’s what people care about,” said Mandelbaum, who described the speech as “notable for how little attention there was to foreign policy issues.”
And as the speech lays out the principle program of the president, Mandelbaum said, “That tells you whatever political capital and energy the administration has is going to be devoted to domestic and not international issues.”
Such a situation is in contrast to the previous administration of George W. Bush, which was largely defined by its actions abroad and which devoted much of its State of the Union planning to foreign issues.
Beyond Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, one political Web site found that Bush referred to Israel and Syria six times each in State of the Union addresses, and Palestine and Lebanon 16 and 10 times respectively.
Mandelbaum, an American foreign policy professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, pointed to Obama’s disappointments in the Middle East as another reason he would be disinclined to focus on the region in his prime-time address.
Indeed, just last week, Obama gave an interview to Time
magazine in which he said “it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted” between Israelis and Palestinians.
All of which points to a decreased attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the other hand, Obama referred to Iran in two separate places – more than almost any other foreign actor – and used some of his strongest rhetoric in threatening that its leaders would face “growing consequences” for rebuffing international calls to halt its nuclear program.
“It should be reassuring to those who think that Iran is important that the president and whoever helped him put together [the speech] concluded that they could not afford not to mention it,” noted Mandelbaum, but added that the brief reference came too late in the address (at more than an hour in) for it to be seen as a major part of the message delivered Wednesday night.
“If you look at the whole foreign policy section, it is clear that it was all a placeholder. They simply didn’t want to make any news about foreign policy on any front,” assessed Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
On Wednesday morning, Kagan made an appeal in The Washington Post
for Obama to shift his support decisively behind the Iranian opposition to try to undercut the regime, calling for the president to take advantage of his “tear down this wall” moment.
That didn’t happen when the president took the podium hours later, as he added only “we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran” in a paragraph devoted to American ideals to his earlier warning over Teheran’s nuclear program.
“On the one hand, I’m disappointed he didn’t say more, or even repeat his earlier positive statements in support of the Iranian opposition,” Kagan said. “But I’m reluctant to read too much into it, because he didn’t say anything serious or interesting about any area of foreign policy.”