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Suggested Title: Obama's State of the Union Focuses On
Domestic Agenda
How about: State of the Union: Searching for a "Sputnik
Suggested quote: <bigpullquote align="left"
textalign="right">'Sputnik moments' are rarely
faced in domestic
Suggested teaser: Despite current global events such as protests
in Egypt and a Tunisian revolution, The U.S. President Barack
Obama's 2011 State of the Union address focused mainly on a
domestic agenda. Foreign affairs took a back seat as Obama tries
to find a balance between the domestic and foreign arenas.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a domestically focused
State of the Union address Jan. 25, calling the task of rebuilding
the American economy "our generation's Sputnik moment." With
just over 12 months before the 2012 Iowa Caucuses -- the first
major electoral test to U.S. presidential candidates -- Obama is
attempting to seek the middle ground on the single issue that is
dominating U.S. politics, the economy.
Foreign affairs took a back seat at the 2011 State of the Union
address. This is not a departure for the Obama White House, his
<link nid="153142">2010 address</link> spent very little time on
foreign affairs, largely ignoring the then growing tensions with
The economy and the issue of the growing deficit currently
dominate U.S. politics. This is not surprising. The recovery from
the 2009 recession has been slow for many people in the country,
especially with employment only now beginning to recover. The
budget deficit is growing, with the Tea Party political movement
specifically bringing that issue to the center of the American
discourse. Emotions are high on issues such as jobs, health care,
government spending, immigration and education. The president
therefore spent more than 90 percent of the speech focusing on the
United States. Meanwhile, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan no longer split the
country politically. There is largely a consensus that the United
States should extricate itself from Iraq and make one last stand
against the Taliban in Afghanistan before eventually doing the
same there. Disagreements exist in how to achieve both, but they
are constrained to the sphere of policy-making, not emotion. The
two wars were started by the previous administration, therefore
limiting how much Obama can face criticism from the right for
continuing them. Meanwhile Obama campaigned specifically on
shifting the focus of the wars to Afghanistan, limiting how much
his own base can turn on him. Obama -- and his rivals -understand this and are therefore focusing on domestic policy
where the 2012 election will most likely ultimately be won or lost.
The focus on domestic politics therefore makes logical sense in the
context of the 2012 elections. However, the U.S. president may not
have the luxury to campaign on domestic issues for the next 21
months. Obama could very well face a crisis in Iraq in 2011 as
U.S. troops reduce their presence and Iran increases its influence.
Russia is slowly weaning Western Europe from the security
arrangements of the Cold War, leaving committed U.S. allies in
Central Europe isolated and threatened by Moscow's resurgence.
Meanwhile China is growing more assertive in its own
neighborhood and is repeatedly refusing to hasten efforts to
address American complaints about its purportedly unbalanced
economic growth in a substantive way.
And therein lies the challenge to leadership. "Sputnik moments" -as were discussed in the lead-up to the State of the Union address - (unnecessary, I mention it at the start!) are rarely faced in
domestic politics and cannot be conjured rhetorically. The reason
Sputnik was such a "moment" in American history, is because it
represented in the minds of the American population a direct,
inherently existential, Soviet threat that spurred the United States
into an educational and technological revolution that it in many
ways still continues to coast on. The challenge before the U.S.
president is to navigate the political minefield of the upcoming
elections and high emotions on domestic issues, while planning
ahead for a potential surprise -- a potentially true Sputnik moment
-- in the foreign realm. The American president is not alone in
dealing with this pendulum between the domestic and foreign
realms, but as the leader of the most powerful country in the world,
his skill -- or lack thereof -- in balancing the two becomes