State of the Union speeches are often analyzed for the poetry of their language or the strength of their political rhetoric, but a clearer sense of the priorities comes from mathematics. Tuesday night's address by President Obama was no exception. With unemployment hovering near 10 percent, the president mentioned “jobs” 30 times in his prepared remarks. The escalating war in Afghanistan, by contrast, warranted seven mentions, while Iraq—once the nation’s top national security concern—was referenced just four times.
The speech was one of the most concrete indications to date of a shift that has been under way for months: A president who took office with an ambitious foreign policy agenda centered on reviving what he saw as a faltering war effort in Afghanistan has been transformed into one focused almost entirely on domestic concerns such as job creation and the need to restore American competitiveness and innovation.
Obama has more than tripled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan since taking office to 97,000, and in his address he argued that his retooled war strategy had “taken the fight to al-Qaida,” “taken Taliban strongholds,” and left fewer Afghans “under the control of the insurgency.”
But while Obama reiterated that the administration would begin to withdraw U.S. troops this July, he gave no indication of the size of the upcoming drawdown and made no explicit reference whatsoever to 2014, the date that has emerged in recent months as the target date for when U.S. forces could turn responsibility for the country over to the Afghans and leave in larger numbers.
Heading into tonight’s speech, the president faced a series of political challenges about Afghanistan. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that public support for the war had fallen to just 41 percent, the lowest level since Obama took office. Lawmakers from both parties are beginning to loudly argue that the war isn’t worth its immense human and financial cost. A record 799 troops were killed in Afghanistan last year, including 499 Americans. This year alone, the U.S. will spend $120 billion on the Afghan war.
Some of Obama’s political difficulties about Afghanistan were the inevitable result of being in office during wartime, particularly during a guerrilla conflict like Afghanistan where success is far from a sure thing. But some of the challenges were clearly of the president’s own making, most notably the self-imposed July 2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan. That move has angered both the Right (which believes setting a fixed date for starting a drawdown emboldened the Taliban), and the Left (which wants the White House to remove far more troops than it is likely to do) that might not have otherwise existed.
Heading into the State of the Union address, many observers inside and outside the military wondered how Obama would work to persuade Americans that the war was worth fighting. The answer, it turns out, is that Obama didn’t even really try. The president, using boilerplate language he’s used many times before, said the U.S. was in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from “reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people” and to “deny al-Qaida the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.”
Turning to Pakistan, Obama said that al-Qaida’s fugitive leadership was “under more pressure than at any point since 2001.” Echoing former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II, he said the United States had sent a message to Islamist militants the world over: “We will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you.”
But that was about as martial a moment as the speech contained, despite being delivered during the waning days of one unpopular war and some of the bloodiest days of another one. Former President George W. Bush frequently referred to himself as a “war president.” Tuesday night, his successor made clear that, at least in his speeches, Obama sees himself very differently.