Foreign policy will likely take up a very small part of tonight’s speech. That is typical for most of these addresses and consistent with the limited attention that Obama has given to these issues in his previous State of the Union speeches, but it is a bit more striking this year than in the last few years. In the last year, negotiations with Iran have continued and been extended, the illegal war against ISIS is now over six months old, and the first moves to resume relations with Cuba have taken place. Presumably Obama will address all of these topics briefly, but each of them is significant enough to merit much more attention than they are likely to receive. Since all three will require some measure of cooperation or at least acquiescence from Congress, it would make sense for them to make up a very large part of tonight’s speech.
We can hope that Obama will reiterate his veto threat against the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill. Tonight’s speech will give him a good opportunity to explain once again why threatening more sanctions is an obstacle to successful negotiations, and it will give him a high-profile occasion to berate Iran hawks that seek to derail the talks. This speech will be a good occasion to update the public on the progress in normalizing relations with Cuba. It will be interesting to see how many of the members will applaud the change in policy. On both of these issues Obama must know that there is determined opposition to his policies, and the speech will give him a chance to define that opposition to the public.
Obama is also expected to call for Congress to authorize the illegal war he has already been waging for half a year. He will have broad support for the policy and for the request for authorization, and this will probably be one of the few moments tonight when both parties will applaud his remarks. This will be another reminder of how screwed up Congress’ priorities and its role in making foreign policy have become. While many senators are going out of their way to throw a wrench into diplomacy with Iran and to block rapprochement with Cuba, almost all of them have neglected their responsibilities to debate and vote on the ongoing war in Iraq and Syria. The things that Congress ought to be leaving alone, it meddles in, and it neglects those things that it ought to be focused on. As for the request itself, Obama is simply paying lip service to Congress’ role. He initially had no intention of seeking their approval, he doesn’t think their approval is needed, and he would ignore them if they voted the wrong way. The entire process surrounding the new AUMF has so far been a farce, and the result will be another depressing example of Congress’ acquiescence to illegal presidential war-making after the fact.
Unfortunately, these issues will probably receive only cursory treatment, and most of the address will be the usual laundry list that has made these speeches so tiresome and boring.
P.S. For those that are interested, I will be commenting on the speech on Twitter (@DanielLarison), and will have some additional comments here on the blog afterwards.