Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines, Labour, North America

U.S.: Obama Downplays Foreign Policy Agenda in Major Speech

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Jan 28 2010 (IPS) - In laying out his priorities for the coming year before a joint session of Congress and millions of viewers Wednesday night, U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear that the focus of administration would be, more than anything else, on domestic issues – and the vital mission of job creation in particular.

President Obama delivers the annual State of the Union address to Congress. Credit: White House Photo/Pete Souza

President Obama delivers the annual State of the Union address to Congress. Credit: White House Photo/Pete Souza

The first third of his State of the Union address discussed past, ongoing and future efforts to put U.S. workers back to work in the midst of the continuing economic recession.

The second third examined other aspects related to the U.S. economy – health care, education, energy and climate legislation, and financial reform.

And then, as a rather incongruent coda, he kicked off a run-down of foreign policy goals and accomplishments.

“Throughout our history, no issue has united this country more than our security,” he abruptly segued.

Obama discussed Afghanistan, Iraq, nuclear disarmament, North Korea and Iran, and a list of examples of bilateral international cooperation, but only allotted about a paragraph to each topic.

On foreign policy, says Allan Lichtman, professor of American Political History at American University, Obama had “absolutely nothing new and nothing interesting to say… Not a single new idea when it came to foreign policy.”

Lichtman says that foreign policy is a “minefield that right now he’d rather tread around” and that those who thought Obama would focus on foreign policy to distract from a troubled domestic situation were “simply wrong.”

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, sees a different reason for the dearth of foreign policy mentions.

In an interview for the CFR website prior to the speech, Hass said, “There are two reasons that the speech is virtually certain to focus on the domestic economy. The first is the actual state of the domestic economy and the politics that surround it. Obviously that’s the subject that’s most on the minds of the American people. But secondly, it also reflects the fact that by contrast, the world of foreign policy and national security is relatively calm.”

A poll gauging the political priorities of the U.S. population, released Monday by the Pew Research Centre, found that the economy and jobs are at the forefront of the public’s agenda. Terrorism is third, but the next foreign policy-related issue – the military – is tenth.

Accordingly, Obama mentioned the word “jobs” 29 times in his address; “Afghanistan” three. But this laser focus on reversing unemployment is even clearer in the way Obama’s domestic priorities seem to have changed in time since his inaugural address last January.

That speech contained only 19 instances of the word “jobs” and 16 of “health care”; “health care” was relegated to seven Wednesday – a conspicuously small number given that the president had up until recently described a reform of the country’s health care system as his top domestic priority.

“Jobs must be our number-one focus in 2010, and that’s why I’m calling for a new jobs bill tonight,” he said.

Lichtman describes the president as at a “pivot point,” and said that Obama needed a course correction in which he moved away from health care – which, Lichtman says, seemed unlikely to be passed anyway – and refocused on the economy.

Though a speech cannot be construed as actual policy – and the State of the Union is traditionally meant for a predominantly domestic audience – this economic laser focus might disappoint those hoping for a broader role of the U.S. in international affairs.

The Israel-Palestine conflict was not mentioned, nor were several other issues and regions he had previously set as top priorities, including Pakistan and Yemen.

The president did call for a “comprehensive energy and climate bill” – legislation that may breathe life into transnational efforts to combat climate change following a largely disappointing conference on the issue in Copenhagen. Elsewhere, he mentioned the role of exports in U.S. economic growth.

On Iraq, Obama said, “As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as president. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.”

He also highlighted the escalation of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and in fighting al Qaeda, saying far more “of al Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates” were killed or captured last year than in 2008. He reiterated his commitment to having U.S. troops begin to leave Afghanistan in July 2011.

He announced the U.S. and Russia “are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades,” and that this is one of the diplomatic efforts that have “strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

“And as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise,” he added.

Emphasising the gap between his own foreign policy agenda and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama detailed the cooperation he has taken with other countries to pursue the goals of this agenda.

“That’s the leadership that we are providing – engagement that advances the common security and prosperity of all people. We’re working through the G20 to sustain a lasting global recovery. We’re working with Muslim communities around the world to promote science and education and innovation.”

“We have gone from a bystander to a leader in the fight against climate change. We’re helping developing countries to feed themselves, and continuing the fight against HIV/AIDS. And we are launching a new initiative that will give us the capacity to respond faster and more effectively to bioterrorism or an infectious disease – a plan that will counter threats at home and strengthen public health abroad,” he said.

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