Foreign Policy Gets Little Attention in Obama’s State of the Union

By Patrick Goodenough | January 28, 2010 | 4:19 AM EST

A man in Hong Kong watches President Obama’s televised State of Union address in the Chinese city on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010. Foreign affairs did not feature strongly in the speech. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

( – President Obama dedicated considerably less of his State of the Union address to foreign policy issues than did five previous presidents in their speeches of similar or shorter length.
About 850 words of Obama’s 7,080-word address – around 12 percent of the total – dealt with foreign affairs.
In contrast, President George W. Bush in his last SOTU devoted some 2,200 words (38 percent of the total) to foreign policy issues. That 2008 speech, Bush’s longest, was more than 1,300 words shorter than Obama’s Wednesday night address.
A comparison of the two speeches reflects the two presidents’ differing priorities.
Obama made one reference to “freedom” (“America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity”) compared to 10 references by Bush in 2008.
“Liberty” did not make an appearance in Wednesday’s speech; Bush used the word eight times.
Obama mentioned “terrorists/terrorism” three times and “al-Qaeda” twice; Bush in 2008 used “terror,” “terrorism” or “terrorists” 23 times and “al-Qaeda” 11 times. Bush additionally used the words “extremists” or “extremism” nine times.
“Democracy” made two appearances in Obama’s speech, while Bush used “democracy” or “democratic” (not including references to the political party) seven times.
In his speech’s foreign policy segment, Obama made reference to Afghanistan (the war, good governance, human rights), Iraq (elections, withdrawal of troops), North Korea (nuclear issue), Iran (nuclear issue, repression), Russia (arms control), Haiti (the earthquake), Guinea (corruption), South Korea, Panama, and Colombia (trade relations) and India, China and Germany (comparing their economic progress with that of the U.S.)
He did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian issue, despite having made the push for a “two-state solution” a foreign policy priority last year.

In 2008, Bush made references to China and India (clean energy cooperation), Georgia and Ukraine (free elections), Lebanon (citizens demanding democracy, Hezbollah terrorism), Iraq and Afghanistan (the war, terrorism, movement towards democracy, Pakistan, Jordan, Spain and Britain (victims of terrorism), Iran (repression, terror-sponsorship, nuclear and missile programs), Sudan (genocide in Darfur), Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Burma (voicing support for freedom in those countries), and Israel and the Palestinian territories (peace talks, democracy, security).
After a year of popular upheaval in Iran unprecedented since the Islamic revolution three decades ago, Obama’s speech include one pertinent reference: “we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran.”
Bush in 2008 included a message aimed at ordinary Iranians: “We have no quarrel with you. We respect your traditions and your history. We look forward to the day when you have your freedom.” (Bush’s 2005 SOTU was even more direct: “And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.”)
Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation, observed after the speech that it took Obama an hour before he “got around to the issue of foreign affairs, terrorism and U.S. foreign military engagements.”
“Many around the world have expressed concern that a U.S. administration so focused on domestic priorities and troubles as the current one will be too inward-looking to be deeply engaged in the world. Judging by its placement in his list of priorities, foreign affairs did seem like an afterthought, briefly addressed.”
Dale did find some bright points, including lines like “America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity.”
She also noted that, “rather than naively reach out to the regimes of Iran and North Korea, the president emphasized their growing isolation, somewhat optimistically holding out the promise of tighter sanctions on Iran. In that sense, the speech reflected some of the hard earned experience of the past year.”
Predecessors also focused more on foreign affairs
Bush is not alone among former presidents, Democrat and Republican, to give foreign issues more attention in their State of the Union speeches.
In his 1998 SOTU, which at 7,300 words was similar in length to Obama’s on Wednesday, President Clinton dedicated roughly 1,100 words to foreign policy, about 15 percent of the total speech.
President George H.W. Bush’s longest SOTU (5,080 words) was in 1992, when he addressed the momentous changes that had taken place over the previous year in Central and Eastern Europe. Around 1,480 words (29 percent) were devoted to foreign policy issues.
In his wordiest SOTU (5,560 words) in 1983, President Reagan prefaced his foreign policy segment by saying, “let us turn briefly to the international arena” then went on to deliver about 1,200 words on the subject (21 percent), about a quarter of which dealt with the Soviet Union.
In President Carter’s 1978 SOTU (4,580 words), some 1,300 of them (28 percent) dealt with foreign policy, with global economic stability and nuclear nonproliferation key themes.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow