x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Obama's new vision in State of the Union speech short on foreign policy

Speech to a joint session of Congress struck a bipartisan tone, but president concentrated on domestic issues and left no doubt that he believes government must play a big role.

President Barack Obama greets members of Congress before delivering his second State of the Union address.
President Barack Obama greets members of Congress before delivering his second State of the Union address.

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama, the US president, laid out his vision of America's future direction in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, with an overwhelming focus on the domestic economy,

It took him almost 45 minutes to mention foreign policy, but there was little surprise there. Mr Obama was always going to focus on the US economy. He inherited the deepest recession the US has suffered in decades, and more than two years into his term the unemployment rate is still above 9 per cent. The faltering economy cost Mr Obama's party the midterm elections last November.

Nevertheless, with the US engaged in two wars, the short thrift given foreign policy was notable.

Five minutes near the end of the speech was dedicated to it. Iraq got one paragraph. Afghanistan two. Iran and al Qa'eda were mentioned almost in passing.

As noticeable as what was said was what was left out. The Palestinian-Israeli peace process, remarkably, did not merit a single mention. This was a sign, said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, that the administration had "nothing to say it felt would be helpful to the process".

The speech "was very much geared towards a domestic audience" he said.

Mr Patrick said it was important for Mr Obama to address the "sense of malaise that is gripping the country", and the domestic focus was certainly welcomed by representatives of both US parties.

Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, said the focus on the economy "hit exactly the right notes".

Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin member of the House of Representatives who gave the official Republican response, said Mr Obama had been "right" to focus on the economy and curtailing government spending and that "some of his words were reassuring".

"As chairman of the House budget committee, I assure you that we want to work with the president to restrain federal spending," he said.

Mr Ryan was critical of what he described as a presidential record of increased spending, and struck a pessimistic note on America's economic future. But his generally measured response to the speech was very much in the spirit of bipartisanship that characterised the evening's proceedings.

Every legislator wore blue and white ribbons in honour of those slain in the Arizona shootings two weeks ago, carnage that prompted a presidential call for more civility in America's political discourse. Democrats and Republicans sat next to each other, rather than on opposite sides of the aisle, as is custom.

Mr Obama's speech, no matter how many bipartisan notes it struck, amounted to a challenge to Republicans and those who ran election campaigns railing against the federal government. While Mr Obama talked about ways to bring federal spending under control, he said the educational system and the country's infrastructure needed government "investment", a word he chose to show that he believes government can play a major role as an engine for economic growth.

The president tried to seize the centre ground on the economy, reaching out to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives by pledging a five-year government-spending freeze.

But he dug his heels in on other issues.

There would be no repeal of the healthcare law, he added, though he would happily work to improve it.

"Let's fix what needs fixing and move forward," he said, as if he could simply bat away an issue that is likely to consume Congress in the months ahead.

That is unlikely to happen. Michelle Bachman, the founder of the Tea Party, who offered a reaction distinct from the official Republican response, said pepeal of "Obamacare" was a pressing priority, at the same time exposing fault lines among Republicans that Mr Obama is likely to attempt to exploit.

The first mention of foreign policy issues also came in the context of the domestic economy, where Mr Obama highlighted the growing competitiveness of China, India and South Korea and warned that the US was beginning to lag behind other countries.

Mr Obama did make the strongest official US statement yet on Tunisia, saying that the "will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator". But there was no mention of demonstrations in Egypt.

"The administration doesn't want to get behind the curve [on events in Egypt]," said Mr Patrick. "The US has to be careful of being overly hypocritical if things should change dramatically".