James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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The World Next Week: Previewing Obama’s State of the Union Address

by James M. Lindsay
January 24, 2014

U.S. president Barack Obama delivers his 2013 State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters) U.S. president Barack Obama delivers his 2013 State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters)

The World Next Week podcast is up. Bob McMahon and I discussed President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address.

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The highlights:

  • President Obama’s State of the Union address, scheduled for next Tuesday night, will tilt heavily toward domestic policy, with income inequality being the major theme. Foreign policy will play second fiddle in the president’s remarks, as it does in most State of the Union addresses. One interesting touch with this year’s speech is that the White House website is offering an enhanced version of the speech, complete with charts, graphs, and visuals. We have come a long way from when presidents put their State of the Union address in a letter to Congress.
  • It is virtually a lead-pipe lock that Obama will at some point in his speech say “The State of the Union is strong.” That line has been de rigueur in State of the Union addresses going back to Bill Clinton’s first term; it is a line that is guaranteed to bring a roar of approval from all the lawmakers in the chamber. But surprisingly, presidents before Clinton generally didn’t use the line. The things you learn preparing for a podcast.
  • Iran figures to get significant treatment in the speech. The interim nuclear deal went into effect on January 20, starting the six-month countdown toward a comprehensive agreement. But Obama faces a brewing rebellion on Capitol Hill from lawmakers who are pushing to pass new sanctions legislation that would kick in if Iran refuses to strike a deal. The administration contends that the legislation would derail the talks and not strengthen Obama’s negotiating hand as supporters claim. The State of the Union address will give the president his best opportunity to take his case directly to the American public. He doesn’t have to persuade all of his critics on the Hill, just enough to be able to make a veto stick.
  • Obama will also be sure to mention the Afghanistan War, now in its thirteenth year, and to praise the courage, dedication, and sacrifice of U.S. troops. He’s not likely, however, to reveal how he intends to respond to the recent proposal from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, to either keep U.S. 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2016 or remove all U.S. troops by end of 2014. A factor complicating the president’s decision-making on the future of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is the refusal of Afghan president Hamid Karzai to sign the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which lays out the terms governing the future U.S. presence in the country. The administration has said it will not maintain U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the absence of a signed BSA.
  • Asia hands will be listening for what Obama says—or doesn’t say—about U.S. interests in the region. The tense relationship between China and Japan puts the White House in a difficult position, and lots of people are wondering what has happened to the administration’s push to rebalance toward Asia. Meanwhile, trade experts will be parsing what Obama says, if he says anything at all, about congressional passage of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which would entitle trade deals to expedited votes in Congress. The president is pursuing an ambitious trade agenda with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP); TPA will be critical to the passage of both trade initiatives. But many congressional Democrats—and more than few Republicans—have deep reservations about TPA.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry has been optimistic in recent weeks that Israel and Palestine are close to a deal for establishing the framework for a peace agreement. Kerry’s self-imposed deadline for the deal is April. Israeli and Palestinian officials, however, seem to be much more pessimistic. Tuesday night’s speech should give a sense of where the president comes down in that debate.
  • Bob’s Figure of the Week is 54. My Figure of the Week is Viktor Yanukovych. Our audience-nominated Figure of the Week comes from TWNW listener ‏@Racz_GOT_Racz who picked Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper. As always, you’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out why.

For more on the topics we discussed in the podcast check out:

State of the Union: The White House details ways to interact with the State of the Union online and  provides a transcript of Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address. National Journal writes that Obama’s speech is an opportunity for the White House to unify a divided Democratic Party. The Wall Street Journal writes that the Obama administration hopes the speech will be a fresh start.  The New Yorker profiles Barack Obama. Politico lists ten Republicans who could give the GOP response.  NBC News reports that Senator Mike Lee will give the Tea Party response to Obama’s speech.  Wonkblog writes that Obama wants to make inequality the defining issue of 2014. The Los Angeles Times reports that Obama’s approval ratings remain low despite an improving economy. Politico writes about the Obama administration’s approach to immigration reform. The Fix writes that healthcare will be one of Obama’s main talking points. CFR.org asks what happened to the Asia pivot in 2013 and posts my interview with Bernard Gwertzman on the world outlook in 2014.  BBC News has background on the current Syria negotiations.   In the Boston Globe, Nicholas Burns details Obama’s 2014 foreign policy challenges.

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