A Split in the State of the Union

This year, Obama's domestic-policy narrative reached its crescendo, while his foreign-policy narrative quietly collapsed.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

If you read Barack Obama’s seven State of the Union addresses as chapters in a book, you notice two distinct storylines. On domestic policy, the narrative is of a president moving America from economic crisis to broad-based prosperity. On foreign policy, it’s of a president moving America from war to peace.

In 2015, the domestic-policy narrative reached its crescendo and the foreign-policy narrative quietly collapsed.

What’s striking in retrospect, when you read the domestic sections of Obama’s early State of the Union speeches, is how tentative and self-critical they are. In 2009, Obama called the economy “weakened and our confidence shakened.” And he practically apologized for bailing out banks. (“I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now … I promise you. I get it.”)

In 2010, he said the country had just finished “a difficult year,” again apologized for the bank bailout (“I hated it; you hated it”) and sounded defensive when discussing Obamacare (“I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics.”) In 2011, he tentatively began declaring economic victory: “These steps we’ve taken over the last 2 years may have broken the back of this recession.” But he still spent much of the speech on the GOP’s turf: pledging to “freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years” and accept “painful … cuts to things I care deeply about.”

In 2012, just in time for his reelection campaign, Obama stopped apologizing for the economy and the deficit and began bashing those unnamed opponents, like Mitt Romney, whose bad ideas, he argued, had created the mess in the first place. In 2013 he finally began to crow, but tentatively, admitting that “Our economy is adding jobs but too many people still can’t find full-time employment … for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.” In 2014 he grew bolder, but still focused his optimism on what America was about to achieve (“I believe this can be a breakthrough year”) than what it already had.

Only this year did Obama truly claim victory, declaring that 2014 was “a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999,” and that “the shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.” It was, as a thousand pundits noted, a victory lap.

From 2009 to 2014, the foreign-policy sections of Obama’s State of the Union speeches follow a similar arc: from problem to solution. In 2009, Obama announced that, “I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq” and “forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat al-Qaeda.” In 2010, he laid out what that strategy was: America was “responsibly leaving Iraq to its people” while “tak[ing] the fight to al-Qaeda” by “increasing our troops” in Afghanistan. But he didn’t yet claim the strategy had been a success. “There will be,” he admitted, “difficult days ahead.”

In 2011, Obama began to sound more optimistic: “Al-Qaeda’s leadership is under more pressure than at any point since 2001. Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe havens are shrinking.” Then, in 2012, just as he did on domestic policy, Obama began declaring success. Beginning and ending his speech with the death of Osama bin Laden, Obama boasted that, “most of al-Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated.” In 2013, he called al-Qaeda “a shadow of its former self.” And in 2014 he said that because “we’ve put al-Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat,” the United States could finally afford to “move off a permanent war footing.”

This year, however, just as Obama’s economic narrative reached its climax, his terrorism narrative quietly fell apart. As in past years, Obama boasted about having withdrawn troops from Afghanistan and about no longer “sending large ground forces overseas.” But in a marked shift from previous years, he stopped claiming that all this had made America safer from terrorism. The discussion of al-Qaeda’s impending defeat ceased. Whereas in 2012, 2013, and 2014 Obama had suggested that the “war on terror” was coming to a close, in 2015 he took several step backwards, merely vowing that, “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks .... This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed.” And then, in what may have been the briefest and most half-hearted call to war in American history, he called on Congress to pass “a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”

It’s easy to understand why Obama blew by the subject so quickly. For seven years, his State of the Union speeches have portrayed a nation moving from danger to safety, war to peace. And now, in his final year in office, he’s not only stopped telling Americans they are safer. He’s declaring war.

It’s not surprising that Obama devoted so much of the foreign-policy section of his speech to Cuba. He clearly hoped that by this point in his presidency he’d be taking a victory lap not only for the recession he overcame but for the wars he brought to a close. Now, instead of ending hot wars, he has to be content ending a cold one.