President Barack Obama is at the helm of a bitterly divided nation, moreover, one which is uncertain about its place in the world.
This could be Obama’s most important State of the Union address, coming as it does just after the nation handed him a firm victory in the November election. This is his moment, before the scrum of mid-term elections, the long run-up to the next presidential poll, and before his presidency is overtaken by the long shadow of history.
But it is by no means smooth sailing.
Fresh from two international wars that have emptied Washington’s coffers and cut a hole in the country’s youth, Americans are a bit leery of hands-on involvement overseas.
The ongoing heartbreak of Syria, troubling developments in Egypt, the continuing threat of Islamic fundamentalism, Iran’s uranium enrichment and North Korea’s nuclear program all need to be dealt with without placing too much financial or emotional weight on the already overburdened American public.
Obama is expected to announce the withdrawal of an additional 34,000 troops from Afghanistan during the speech, effectively halving the 66,000 force in the country and setting the stage for the final withdrawal in 2014.
Questions rage about the wisdom or efficacy of handing over all operations to Afghan troops, but at this point in the conflict, some experts say, it would be extremely difficult to stop.
The president is also in favor of a steep reduction in the country’s nuclear arsenal — to about 1,000, The New York Times reported. With more than 1,700 nuclear weapons currently deployed, the president is looking to save money and increase security by tightening controls on warheads.
But he can expect stiff resistance from the Republicans on that issue, similar to what they mounted in response to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START.
In order to avoid a ratification fight for a new agreement, Obama may try to strike a more informal deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, extending and deepening START. The president has expressed that the cuts are long overdue.
However, after the Times report Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Obama is not likely to make an announcement on the issue during the State of the Union address, saying the president’s “commitment to arms control and nuclear reductions is well known.”
What is in question here is America’s place in the world. US citizens calmly accept their preeminence but appear uneager to exert major effort to reinforce or extend it.
As Obama’s contentious nomination of Republican Chuck Hagel for defense secretary has shown, Iran creates a deepening problem for Washington. Americans are divided over just how tough the government should get to stop Tehran from potentially developing nuclear weapons. The Israeli government has prodded its historical ally to step up pressure on Iran, but some doubt how unquestioning Obama’s support is for the Israelis. The president plans to visit Israel for the first time during his presidency next month.
The US military’s drone bombings have also come under hefty criticism — in spite of the Obama administration’s efforts to convey they fit the bill: extension of power without costing American lives.
Last week’s leak of a government memo justifying targeted attacks on Al Qaeda leaders, even if they’re US citizens, only ratcheted up the scrutiny.
The president also has a world of domestic woes to deal with this evening.
He is leading a country where many of the old certainties are going by the board. Upward economic spirals are no longer a sure thing, and the American Dream is taking a heavy beating in an era of new, and harsher, economic realities.
The country is headed for yet another “fiscal cliff” — sequestration will set in on March 1 if the White House can not find some accommodation with Congress over the budget. Obama will doubtless aim to spread some soothing words about the timid uptick in indicators, but struggling Americans know the problem is more fundamental than a quick fix, and will be looking for truly substantive answers.
Gun control, which is expected to figure prominently in the speech, cannot be discussed rationally in most circles, dyed-in-the-wool Second Amendment patriots finding scant food for discourse with grieving parents. Obama is proposing a ban on certain types of weapons and high-capacity magazine clips. He will also push for universal background checks. Almost all of these measures will run afoul of those who fan fears that the government is hatching plans to confiscate all the guns and establish a dictatorship.
Immigration, as seen by the recent initiatives to open a pathway to citizenship for those who are already here, will be a major focus of this State of the Union. With as many as 11 million undocumented workers in the country, something must be done, and soon. But again, reform bids from either side of the aisle of Congress could face major opposition — while Republicans are talking a good game about broadening their base, analysts say it’s unlikely they will move to hand citizenship over to 11 million new voters who tend to swing toward the Democrats.
The administration has billed tonight’s speech (9 p.m. ET) as Part II of Obama’s inaugural address last month.
It is an impressive program; only time will tell how much he can accomplish given the equally impressive constraints he faces.