Shadow Government

Obama’s State of the Union: Checking Boxes and Discovering America

As had been widely expected, President Obama devoted the bulk of his State of the Union address to domestic issues. In so doing, he remained faithful to his long-standing promise to do some "nation building here at home." In turn, that has meant a gradual withdrawal of American leadership worldwide: "leading from behind" in Libya, pivoting away from Europe and the Middle East while underfunding the forces meant to buttress the U.S. presence in Asia, abstaining from any meaningful role in support of the Syrian rebellion, and forging ahead with a withdrawal from Afghanistan that could unleash the same fissiparous forces that now plague Iraq.

The president asserted that he would not send troops in harm's way "unless it is truly necessary" but gave no indication as to what contingencies might be deemed "necessary." Obama was unequivocal in asserting that he would not authorize large scale deployments for "open-ended conflicts," though how he would determine when a conflict is not open-ended was far less clear. He also asserted that the United States would no longer be on a "permanent war footing," which might come as a surprise to the 99 percent of Americans who are not in the military and whose lives have barely been disrupted by thirteen years of conflict overseas.

The president devoted a considerable part of his brief remarks on national security to the challenge of countering terrorism -- he refrained from calling it "war" -- but did not outline exactly how he would meet that challenge. Other threats, apart from brief references to cyber and the challenge posed by Iran's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, hardly received any mention. Obama's remarks regarding Iran mentioned force only as a backdrop to his emphasis on "giving diplomacy a chance." In fact, the president was at his most forceful when promising to veto any congressional attempt to interfere with his diplomatic strategy by imposing, or even threatening to impose, new sanctions on Iran. Obama insisted that he would be the first to restore sanctions if Iran did not concede to curbing its nuclear weapons program. But he was far less emphatic regarding his likely response if Iran made some concessions that might be reversed at a future date.

Similarly, the president checked off several foreign policy boxes without much conviction. He called Israel a Jewish state. He called for a Palestinian state. He voiced his support for Syria's opposition and claimed credit for pressuring Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons, though Vladimir Putin might have a different view on that score. He made a brief reference to democracy movements in Tunisia and Burma but conveniently ignored the disaster that has been American policy toward Egypt. Europe, Africa, and Latin America all got a mention. No continent was left behind.

The president certainly stirred the emotions of all who witnessed him praise Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg. His promise to provide more support to veterans, including providing better mental health services, is certainly welcome. But he only spoke in vague terms about "investing in capabilities" that America's men and women in uniform would "need in future missions." Other than drones, to which he did devote some attention, it remained unclear capabilities he meant.

Perhaps the president's most important message, really an acknowledgment, was that "no other country in the world does what we do." It marked a departure from his earlier assertions that the United States was like any other country. It took him five years in office, but Obama has finally recognized what the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens have known all along: that America is truly exceptional and that there is not now -- nor has there ever been -- any other nation like it on the face of the earth.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Is Obama Even Trying on Trade?

The president faces an enormous challenge on trade. He has built much of his Asian foreign policy around the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and much of his European foreign policy around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In each case, he did so on the promise to our international partners -- explicit or implicit -- that he would sooner or later bring Congress around.

It is now later. The TPP was nominally to conclude last year. Other countries' trade ministers have stated their desire to see it wrap up as soon as possible. They are waiting on White House efforts to win a negotiating mandate from Congress (known as TPA). While such a measure has met some Republican opposition, the most serious challenge has come from Democrats, particularly in the House. The Senate looked safer, at least before the president sent the bill's key Democratic backer, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), off to Beijing.

In the House, members of the president's party have voiced skepticism about what trade deals do. They believe those deals cost jobs, damage the environment, and harm workers. A key part of the president's task in his State of the Union address was to speak to these members of his party and their constituents watching at home. He had to persuade them that, while he had once espoused such positions and empathized, the critics were mistaken. Instead, here was the sum total of the president's pitch:

"...when 98 percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create even more jobs. We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment and open new markets to new goods stamped 'Made in the USA.'"

Even had the president made this statement at the beginning of last summer, when discussions were just starting up on the TPA, it would have been cursory. Few people are persuaded by the bare assertion that their strong beliefs are false and the opposite is true. Usually, to change minds, some supporting detail is required, some evidence, or a carefully structured argument. Weak mercantilist claims are easily rejected by skeptics (e.g. if trade is good because exports bring jobs, what does it mean when we run a trade deficit and imports exceed exports?).

Not only did the president fail to make much of a sales pitch, but his vague call to ‘work together' comes at a time when a bipartisan bill has been crafted and the battle lines are drawn. By not mentioning the bill, nor taking a stance on the controversial facets under debate -- currency provisions, intellectual property protection clauses, trade adjustment assistance -- the White House remains on the sidelines, hoping that TPA will simply fall into its lap without much expenditure of effort or political capital.

Success on the trade front was going to require experienced leadership in the Congress and a concerted public and private persuasion campaign from the President. Instead, the last month has brought the removal of an irreplaceable Capitol Hill proponent and noncommittal nods from the White House. This does not bode well.

Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images