Shadow Government

Forget the speech, focus on the policy

The State of the Union speech was almost completely about domestic policy. By my count, roughly 1/7th of the address (about 1000 words in a 7000 word speech) was devoted to foreign policy and national security, the bailiwick of this blog. Perhaps this proportion reflects the mood of the country, or the medium of the platform, or the mode of this administration. However, it is a noteworthy proportion for a president who mentioned national security in his inaugural address before raising any domestic policy issue -- and did so rather dramatically with the words, "Our nation is at war.…"

Last night, President Obama did mention the war, or rather the wars. He described the Iraq war as "coming to an end" and, while he did claim that our troops were leaving "with their heads held high," that was about as far as he was willing to go in terms of claiming success or failure. It was a far cry from the triumphalist rhetoric of Vice President Biden, by comparison. Obama mentioned a "lasting partnership with the Iraqi people," but he placed that squarely with "our civilians," thus avoiding mention of the critical role the U.S. military will play over the next decade in helping train and maintain Iraqi security forces.

Obama's mention of the broader war on terror was brief but otherwise Bushian, combining the kinetic ("we have taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies") with the police work ("Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals…") with the war of ideas ("…the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our family.") Left unaddressed is the ongoing controversy over the Obama administration's embrace of the lion's share of the Bush war on terror policies circa 2007.

There were a few optimistic notes about Afghanistan and Pakistan that were doubtless discordant in the ears of the growing number of Americans, especially within the chattering class and most especially among the president's political base, who believe that the mission there is doomed. The confusion over the long-range strategy for Afghanistan was left unaddressed -- the briefest possible mention to the infamous July 2011 deadline and no mention whatsoever of U.S. commitments during the critical period from July 2011 to 2014. I suspect that one year from now domestic politics will demand that the 2012 State of the Union address spend a bit more time elaborating on all of this.

The rest of the foreign-policy references were noteworthy for their focus on the past rather than the present or future. For the most part, they were a series of pats on the back for things done -- New START passed, new Iranian sanctions imposed, new NATO strategic document unveiled, and so on -- rather than a bold vision for how to address the challenges that remain.

President Obama did address the foreign-policy topic of the hour, the popular unrest in the Arab world, but with only the blandest of references to Tunisia and no mention whatsoever of the far more ominous rumblings in Egypt and Lebanon. My objection is not with what the president said ("The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people") but with what the president did not say, as in "What this means for Egypt is.…," or "So in Lebanon we must.…" Undoubtedly, the president's advisors decided that given the delicacy of rapidly fluid environment, the less said the better.

From my parochial point of view, the president's best national security-related reference was his call to open up all U.S. campuses to military recruiters and to ROTC. This is an issue that has true bipartisan support and is long overdue. It is also an issue on which President Obama has unique influence, given that the target audience -- university administrators -- is likely one of the more ardent factions in the president's political base.

Otherwise, the speech offered little grist for a foreign-policy mill. It was not much of a harbinger of how the president and his team will handle the myriad foreign-policy challenges they face. Yet I am confident that President Obama will spend far more than 1/7th of the remainder of his current term on foreign policy, so Shadow Government folks will have plenty to address in the coming months even if there was not much for us last night.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The SOTUation on trade and the deficit

The State of the Union address offers any president the temptation to revel in the pageantry and splendor of the office. He can sound resonant themes and expound on U.S. values. He can embellish these motifs with the recognition of carefully-placed guests in the balcony.

President Obama is at his best when delivering high-altitude orations about national aspirations. This can be terrifically effective in a campaign or in a moment of national mourning. It can also be a necessary prelude to effective action, a way of rallying the public to support difficult choices.

The problem is that on the key issues of trade and the deficit President Obama's prelude to action has now lasted more than half his term. On each, he has earnestly stressed the national need for action. Yet on trade, he has only moved the country to where it was in mid-2007. On the deficit, he has moved the country backwards.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, the president said, "Here's the truth about today's economy: If we're serious about fighting for American jobs and American businesses, one of the most important things we can do is open up more markets to American goods around the world."

This has the standard mercantilist twist of the president's trade advocacy, but it's a worthy theme. How does it translate into action?

The president said, "That goal is why I fought so hard to negotiate a new and better trade deal with South Korea." The original KORUS free trade agreement was signed in June of 2007. It was worth passing then and it is worth passing now. The Obama administration has reworked the agreement so that it is a bit better for Ford Motor Company and a bit worse for U.S. pork producers. The changes are sufficiently minor that the official U.S. International Trade Commission estimates for economic impact are unlikely to show any change from 3.5 years ago.

The president also touted his trip to India. While India is a strategically important emerging economy, it does not make the top ten list of U.S. trading partners, nor was there any momentous change in policy.

If the president wished to advance relations with smaller trading partners, what of the pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama? More important still, why not some initiative to move the Doha Round of World Trade Organization talks forward? On these we have had years of good intentions, aspirational pronouncements, and policy neglect. Republican leaders have called for moving forward broadly on trade, but the administration has limited itself publicly to backing the Korea FTA. On Doha, the White House has waited patiently for other countries to make an offer. That strategy has been predictably ineffectual in a trading regime that has always relied heavily on U.S. leadership.

At least, on the big trade issues, the president has done no harm. The same cannot be said about the deficit. While steadily espousing the need to address the deficit, the president's signature health care initiative launched two new entitlement programs that demonstrably worsen the long-term deficit situation.

The lack of leadership on the federal budget deficit is particularly striking because there is built-in, institutional pressure to lead on the issue. Every year, in the follow-up to the State of the Union address, presidents put forth their vision for addressing the nation's fiscal situation in the form of the budget. Crafted under the direction of the Office of Management and Budget, is meant to describe near-term and longer-term solutions to questions of taxes and spending. This would seem to leave little room for dodging pressing fiscal decisions.

Remarkably, though, the Obama administration did just that with last year's budget. Rather than depicting a path for a sustainable level of deficit spending, with the hard choices that would entail, it explicitly and admittedly offered an unsustainable path. The Congress then dutifully followed the president's lead (or lack thereof) and failed to pass a budget of its own. The administration later assured the citizenry that the president's deficit commission would set things right.

This gambit of waiting for the deficit commission seemed to offer the possibility that the Democrats in charge might slip past the November midterm elections without confronting difficult issues of spending and the size of government. In the event, public concerns were not assuaged.

Now, the president has the proposals of his deficit commission before him. They are controversial and he has yet to embrace them. He also has an alternative he probably finds even less appealing -- House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's (R-WI) "Road Map." But the president has yet to put forward a plan of his own.

His lack of leadership on the deficit issue has international ramifications. Major economic gatherings have recently fixated on global imbalances. Uncontrolled U.S. borrowing has drawn unflattering attention, particularly as other nations like the U.K. have found the will to adopt bold deficit-reduction strategies.

The calls for leadership on trade and the deficit are getting louder, even from the president's own party. Former White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty today joins a former Clinton and Biden aide Nelson Cunningham in calling for more action on trade. Former Clinton-era Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman joins Richard Haass in calling for a move beyond generalities on deficits.

At tomorrow night's State of the Union, beyond the pageantry and platitudes, it is worth listening to whether the president has crafted workable solutions and made tough decisions, or whether we will be asked to wait until 2013 for the extended prelude to give way to real movement.

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