Aaron David Miller and Fred Kaplan make similar observations about the limited attention to foreign policy in the State of the Union address last night, which both correctly attribute to the public’s war-weariness and Obama’s interest in focusing on domestic priorities in his second term. Miller writes:
Two clocks tick down in a president’s second term: the drive for legacy and the reality of lame duckery. Obama’s political capital will diminish quickly. Where, how, and on what he wants to spend it is critical. The Middle East is violent and volatile and may yet suck him in, but if he can avoid it, he’ll try. This was a State of the Union address that stressed fixing America’s broken house, not chasing around the world trying to fix everyone else’s.
One thing I would add is is that there is no good reason to expect presidents to include extensive discussions of foreign policy issues in State of the Union addresses unless they are prepared to propose something new or celebrate a recent accomplishment. The modern purpose of the speech is to review the state of the U.S. and outline the president’s domestic agenda. Following the Bush years, it can be easy to forget that most of these speeches are like the one we heard last night, in which discussion of foreign policy plays just a small supporting role. Especially since the end of the Cold War, that is what we should expect, and it is unusual for foreign policy issues to dominate the president’s remarks.
The closest that the speech came to making news in this area was when Obama announced the withdrawal of 34,000 soldiers from Afghanistan and pledged to end “our war” in Afghanistan, which was entirely consistent with what he had led people to expect during the 2012 campaign. On virtually every other issue, except perhaps for climate change, the message was “steady as she goes.” There was no sign last night of any dramatic changes on U.S. policy toward Syria and Iran, and little more than a reiteration of existing policy regarding North Korea. There has never been much reason to expect that the administration would want to embroil itself more deeply in Syria’s conflict, and it would have been unwise to react immediately to the North Korean nuclear test with much more than what was said last night. The nod to continued arms reduction is welcome news, but it will be extremely difficult to get enough support in Congress for such measures.
If Obama’s attention to foreign policy issues was limited, Rubio and Paul almost completely avoided them. In Paul’s case, he had already presented his foreign policy views, and he was there to speak on behalf of Tea Party activists, so it’s not surprising that his focus was overwhelmingly on domestic issues and criticism of executive abuse of power. Rubio’s decision to say almost nothing about foreign policy was an interesting one, since his enthusiasm for hard-line policies has been one of the more important parts of his Senate career so far. Except for a throwaway line about America as the “indispensable nation,” he didn’t bring up the subject, which suggests some awareness that the public’s priorities are elsewhere. I don’t think we can conclude from this that Rubio suddenly accepts that his hard-line positions are political liabilities, but he did seem to appreciate that there was nothing to be gained by dwelling on them.