The U.S. Constitution requires the president to give a State of the Union speech each year, but Congress is not required to follow through on the commitments that the president makes. Last night’s speech was striking from the start (as President Barack Obama invoked John F. Kennedy) to the end (when Obama called out the names of the towns struck by gun violence). In between, Obama made a variety of promises that will be extraordinarily hard to keep with an incredibly hostile House of Representatives and none-too-cooperative minority in the Senate. So, as we consider the substance of the speech, we must keep in mind two constraints that will limit Obama’s ability to meet his promises: the polarization of the parties and the budget deficits.
Like all second-term presidents, Obama will find far more flexibility in foreign affairs than on domestic policy. The biggest promise Obama made last night was that the American war in Afghanistan will be over by the end of 2014. He quite clearly said “our war,” not “the war.” He justified this by saying that al-Qaeda was broken in Afghanistan, but that actually happened before his watch. Obama was papering over the reality that the goal of the past several years – to build an Afghanistan that could stand mostly on its own – is up for grabs. Maybe Afghanistan will be able to fight off the Taliban without tens of thousands of American and NATO troops, or maybe not. But after 2014, it will not be an American war. The big question is whether Obama will be able to conclude an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to keep a smaller, residual force to train & equip the Afghans, and to engage in counter-terrorism. This promise hinges far more on Karzai than on Congress. Thus far, Afghanistan has looked a bit like Iraq on this question: A status of forces agreement (SOFA), which would guarantee that U.S. troops will not to be tried in Afghan courts, might not be concluded. So, we may still see the U.S. pull out entirely.
Obama’s second big foreign policy promise was that the U.S. will engage in trade negotiations with the European Union. While much was made of the pivot to Asia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership over the past year, the proposal to improve trade with the EU parallels Canada’s efforts – and may, indeed, complicate Canada’s efforts, given that the EU will focus most of its efforts on the much bigger market. It is not clear at all what the negotiations will produce. Unlike with other foreign policy initiatives, Obama will need Congress to go along with it, as any trade agreement will require changes in American regulations and taxation. While the Republicans have been opposed to even the most modest of treaties for fear of sacrificing sovereignty to some international menace, it is more likely that a EU partnership will go through if big businesses favour it.
The third foreign policy promise that Obama made in last night’s speech was that the U.S. will intervene less in the world. He held up Mali as an example of a situation in which the U.S. is helping an ally rather than taking the lead. After a decade of war and spiralling deficits, the U.S. is exhausted. Only obliquely did Obama refer to the suicide rate of American soldiers, but it is clear that the wars of the 2000s will continue to cost the U.S. for decades to come. Staying out of conflicts, including that of Syria, will be controversial, but it is far easier for a second-term president to do nothing than to launch yet another war. Indeed, the easiest way to cut the budget is to not go to war.
Canada was not mentioned in Obama’s speech. Given the stability of the Canada-U.S. relationship, this is not surprising. There is no new bold initiative aimed squarely at Canada. The closest would be heaps of new spending on infrastructure, which would have implications at the border, as bridges and rail connections might be improved. Spending money on construction is something Congresspeople can usually get behind, because it results in money and jobs flowing to their districts. Obama also mentioned climate change, but if there is anything the Republicans will fight hard against (other than guns), it is significant legislation on climate change. Obama can have some effect by continuing to develop regulations for cars that reduce their impact on the planet, but it is hard to imagine anything like a cap and trade bill making it through Congress. So, the good news for Canada is that it can continue to have a partner in lagging behind the world’s expectations on climate change.
Alas, the most moving part of the speech was also the most frustrating. The most memorable part of the speech was when Obama listed places that have experienced gun violence, and said that they deserve a vote. That is, he wants Congress to at least vote on proposals to limit gun violence. That’s right, he is not calling for victory – he is just calling for the bills to get out of committee and to reach the floors of the House and of the Senate. Given that one of the Republicans invited Ted Nugent – a noted “gun rights advocate” who has at least once threatened the president’s life – as his guest to the State of the Union address, it is hard to see any such vote taking place. That said, Obama did succeed on the health care legislation, so unlikely things have happened, and, as Obama noted in his speech, the public is squarely behind him on the subject of gun control. The time may be ripe, due to the series of tragedies of late, for significant change. But I doubt it.
Before concluding, I want to address one of the last parts of the speech. I am so glad Obama spent some time at the end on what I call #voterfraudfraud – the Republicans’ efforts to use the imaginary threat of voter fraud to suppress the votes of those most likely to vote for the Democrats. Using a 102-year-old woman who had to wait six hours in line to vote (why didn’t people let her cut in line?) to illustrate the indecency of voter suppression was a powerful move. As the Republicans realize that they might just need some minority votes in the future given the demographic changes underway, they might cease such efforts. Or they may ramp them up and double down. It is hard to say whether the Republicans will learn and adapt.
Anyway, Obama made a lot of promises and a few exaggerations, just like all presidents do. Many of the promises will not be kept, but the speech does matter as it shapes the agenda of the country for at least a little while. The next few months will determine whether Obama can get much of his domestic agenda through Congress. The foreign policy agenda would be more under his control if it were not for the pesky events that occur on a regular basis around the world, forcing the president to respond. So, while I have some reason to believe that Obama will be able to pursue his foreign policy initiatives, it will not be easy, as the world has a way of shaking things up. Arab Spring, anyone?
This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub OpenCanada.