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Obama's State of the Union: More foreign than before

- January 24, 2015

The following is a guest post from Andrew Wolff, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Dickinson College.

One of the common criticisms of President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address (and of past addresses) is that he gave short shrift to the crucial topic of foreign policy. For instance, Politico’s Josh Gerstein criticizes Obama for not mentioning al-Qaeda or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson described the foreign policy sections of Obama’s speech as unambitious and lacking in detail. Others deride any details that were there as delusional.
Are the critics right? I don’t pretend to be able to measure delusion. But the broader answer appears to be no – and yes.
On the one hand, an empirical look at this year’s address indicates that Obama is actually focusing more attention on foreign policy than ever before. This conclusion derives from a textual analysis of all six of his State of the Union addresses to date (remember that Obama’s Feb. 24, 2009, speech to Congress was not a State of the Union address.)
The graph below tracks the percentage of the total words in each Obama State of the Union address that are devoted to foreign policy themes, including national security, trade policy, diplomacy, and foreign affairs. More than a quarter (26.9 percent) of the words in the 2015 State of the Union were dedicated to the topic of foreign policy. By contrast, he only devoted 13.9 percent of his first official State of the Union address in 2010 to that topic. Indeed, over time the speeches show a steady yearly increase in the relative emphasis Obama places on foreign policy.

This pattern supports the generally accepted notion that presidents tend to devote more attention to foreign policy the longer they stay in office — that over time, presidents retreat into foreign policy and spend less effort on domestic affairs. There are several possible reasons for this. First, presidents tend to face greater resistance to their domestic agenda the longer they are in office. This is especially true in a president’s second term; not only has the low-hanging fruit been plucked already, the pressure to win votes and placate domestic constituencies diminishes and lame duck-syndrome sets in. Second, the president dominates foreign policy decision-making in the U.S. government. As resistance to a president’s domestic policy grows, foreign policy becomes more attractive, given that he can act in a far more unfettered fashion there. Domestic scandal fades in the glow of state dinners in foreign capitals.
Finally, over the course of their administration presidents simply become more comfortable with setting foreign policy as they gain more experience in handling international diplomacy. Our three most recent presidents – Clinton, Bush, and Obama – have all come into office with little international experience. As they gained more aptitude at handling the instruments of international power it was natural for them to dedicate more of their time and effort to this policy area. Obama’s top priorities in 2009 were to repair the economy and pass health-care legislation. Six years later, the Republican control of both chambers of Congress limits his ability to set the domestic political agenda. Under these circumstances one would expect Obama to spend more time on foreign matters and, at least rhetorically, this appears to be the case.
Of course, in the face of major international crisis, presidents will spend a lot of time talking about foreign policy, no matter if they are a first or second term president. For example, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush dedicated 74.3 percent of his first official State of the Union address in 2002 to foreign policy. Retreat into foreign policy is not a hard-and-fast rule — we need to control for “events, dear boy, events” — but the trend of Obama’s rhetoric appears to affirm its appeal.
Still, Obama’s critics may have a point. Although Obama is clearly speaking more on foreign policy themes in his State of the Union addresses, he dedicates less space to the topic than most other presidents have done. For instance, Jeffrey Cohen’s 1995 study of Cold War State of the Union addresses found that, on average, presidents spent 40 percent of their addresses on foreign policy.

Jeffrey E. Cohen, “Presidential Rhetoric and the Public Agenda”, American Journal of Political Science 39 (February 1995): 91.

Source: Jeffrey E. Cohen, “Presidential Rhetoric and the Public Agenda,” American Journal of Political Science 39 (February 1995): 91.

Likewise, my own analysis shows that George W. Bush’s State of the Addresses were heavily comprised of foreign affairs and national security concerns. In total, Bush’s speeches contained an average of 52.9 percent foreign policy content (though this may be slightly skewed upward given that the pre-9/11 speech of early 2001, centered on budgetary concerns, was not a State of the Union address.)
Obama, on the other hand, scores a average of 18.8 percent for the foreign policy content of his six addresses.
In short: though Obama is spending more time in his speeches on foreign policy, it is well below the norm for presidents in the modern era. This suggests that foreign policy is clearly not a high priority for Barack Obama in comparison to his predecessors — or at least that he prefers to focus public attention on domestic concerns.