Topics Obama Won't Dwell Upon Tuesday Night

Topics Obama Won't Dwell Upon Tuesday Night
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From Americans’ stagnant incomes to Iran's nuclear ambitions, and from pre-kindergarten classrooms to climate change, President Obama will have lots to say Tuesday evening.

State of the Union addresses -- overhyped by the media and usually a gossamer memory for millions of TV watchers by the next morning -- are in presidents’ minds a seductive hour in which to explain visions and sell accomplishments.

Obama’s latest big speech is intended to be a pragmatic work plan for his executive branch and a campaign template for nervous Democratic candidates. It’s supposed to be a restatement of America’s might for allies and foes abroad, and a confidence-boost to Americans that they have better days ahead.

“What they want to see is progress,” said White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer on “Fox News Sunday” as he divined Americans’ anxieties. “What they want are answers,” he told CNN.

Yet, however optimistic and in-the-driver’s seat Obama may sound this week while addressing lawmakers in the Capitol (and while speaking to crowds during two days of post-speech travel in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee), he’ll also downplay or duck consequential issues.

Second terms, as history has suggested and academics have analyzed, are too often marred by scandals and events that swamp even the tidiest White House blueprints for action. As Obama kicks off his sixth year in office with public job approval under 44 percent, according to the RCP average, what he doesn’t dwell on during Tuesday’s speech is just as interesting as what he does. Here are a few of his looming headaches:

Russia Relations, Terrorism, and the Winter Olympics (Feb. 7-23)

The Sochi Winter Olympics will not lack for drama.

Along with the tensions of athletic competition and U.S.-Russia friction over Iran, Syria and gay rights, the prospects of terrorist attacks at the games have seized the administration’s attention. Obama has talked directly to President Putin about Sochi security, and government officials have offered various security and counterterrorism expertise to the Russians. Senior administration officials have been candid that Putin’s government, proud of its host status and confident it can thwart any threats, had not as of last week embraced all assistance the United States offered.

The State Department issued travel alerts for an estimated 10,000 Americans who may travel on their own to the Winter Games. The administration said it could quickly tap both commercial and chartered aircraft and naval ships that will be in the Black Sea if it has to evacuate U.S. citizens from Russia. And the 230 U.S. athletes (and 270 coaches and staff accompanying them) have been asked by the U.S. Olympic Committee’s security coordinator to cover their distinct red-white-and-blue uniforms or leave them behind when outside the Olympic Village.

Eleven Israeli athletes and a police officer died during a siege at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and two people were killed and more than 100 injured in a bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The administration will have “a large contingent” of diplomatic security and FBI agents in Sochi to protect athletes, as well as U.S. experts in Moscow, senior administration officials told reporters Friday. And the administration, along with allied nations, cast an intelligence net over the games, recognizing that the Russians are collaborating but are capable of surprises. For example, American officials learned “about the same time” as the news media that Russian authorities were searching for female “black widows” suspected of being in Sochi. Those reports, they said, had not been independently verified.

“We’ve seen an increase in threat reporting, which is concerning to us,” a senior administration official said, speaking on background. “Of course, we always wish our partners would share more information.”

Terms of the U.S. Exit From Afghanistan (February-April)

The administration has pledged to end the combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but Obama wants to keep approximately 10,000 troops and military experts there to provide continued assistance and training inside the violent country.

But that will only occur if the government of President Hamid Karzai signs a security agreement, which was negotiated in 2012. Karzai, a mercurial leader who must step down after a successor is elected in April, has stalled for months, exasperating White House and Pentagon planners, who have been seeking his signature since last year.

The Taliban and Iran have urged Karzai not to sign the pact. Administration officials have told Karzai publicly and privately that no U.S. or NATO troops will remain in Afghanistan to help defend against extremists beyond 2014 if his government does not sign a bilateral security agreement soon.

NATO defense chiefs met in Brussels last week and collectively sent Afghanistan a similar message: “There are no doubts about our commitment to Afghanistan post-2014, as part of a broad international community effort,” said Gen. Knud Bartels, chairman of the NATO Military Committee. “So the sooner the legal framework is agreed on, the better it will be for the continuation of our planning.”

There are currently 37,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and approximately 19,000 from NATO and allied nations. The Pentagon plans call for 32,000 U.S. forces to remain by February, with a faster drawdown following Afghanistan’s presidential elections in April.

America’s Borrowing Authority (February)

Once again, the nation will exhaust its statutory borrowing authority within weeks, threatening default if Congress does not act by the end of next month. Obama says he won’t bargain with congressional Republicans who want favored GOP policies before they’ll vote to hike borrowing, while Republican lawmakers insist Obama’s call for a “clean” bill is “irresponsible.”

So Washington brinksmanship is back, and the question is when the Treasury Department expects to default if Congress and the president don’t agree. The current authority to borrow money to pay bills expires after Feb. 7.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew last week updated his department’s calculations and told Congress in a letter that the tax filing season reduces his department’s discretion to shift accounts to buy additional time for negotiations on Capitol Hill.

“I respectfully urge Congress to provide certainty and stability to the economy and financial markets by acting to raise the debt limit before February 7, 2014, and certainly before late February,” he wrote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his conference and House GOP leaders agree “we’re not going to have default.” But in a Fox News interview on Sunday, the Kentucky Republican said Obama’s insistence on a bill that would raise borrowing authority with no strings or other companion goals was “irresponsible.”

“I think any president’s request to raise the debt ceiling … is a good opportunity to do something about the debt,” he said. “We ought to attach something significant to his request.”

McConnell said the administration’s approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline or changes to ease mandates in the Affordable Care Act would both be “important steps in the right direction.”

NSA Surveillance (March 28)

Despite reassurances from Obama in a Jan. 17 speech about National Security Agency intelligence gathering, and from Attorney General Eric Holder last week that the legality is settled, Congress and the American people seem less certain.

And beyond the publicly revealed intelligence community programs that raised questions about privacy and rights, no one knows if former government contractor Edward Snowden has more to unveil this year about U.S. government spying.

Obama can never have the final word as long as Snowden, other leakers, and respected overseers have more to say on the subject.

The president told the public he wants to alter the government’s phone metadata program to store massive information gathered daily from phone companies and copied by NSA inside some non-governmental entity. He gave Holder and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence until March 28 to come up with a plan to do it. But many people who are most familiar with the particulars think his idea is either infeasible or unwise.

Without a viable alternative for data storage and security, Obama may have to decide whether to leave the program mostly as it is at NSA, or shut it down. And if the executive branch doesn’t act, Congress this year will be pressed to debate the ambiguities and rethink NSA’s adaptations, by revisiting the law.

Obama has endorsed the government’s bulk data collection as a valuable tool that he believes is necessary to help thwart terrorist attacks -- an assertion two expert federal review panels and some members of Congress dispute.

“In nearly all cases the benefits provided have been minimal,” the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board reported last week.

“In our view the daily governmental collection of the telephone calling records of nearly every American has deep privacy ramifications, fundamentally alters the relationship between citizens and the state, and threatens to substantially chill the speech and associational freedoms that are essential to our democracy,” the majority wrote in a highly detailed and scathing dissection of federal surveillance.

“Any governmental program that entails such costs requires a strong showing of efficacy. We do not believe the NSA’s telephone records program conducted under Section 215 [of the USA Patriot Act] meets that standard.”

Affordable Care Act Insurance Enrollment (March 31)

With more than 3 million people enrolled under the Affordable Care Act to buy private insurance through the new federal and state marketplaces, Obama and his team say they’re optimistic that the failed website launch can be overcome by a valued set of health benefits.

The open enrollment period to get insurance through the marketplaces ends on March 31. If Americans don’t have basic health coverage in 2014, they may have to pay a fine through the IRS by 2015, under provisions of the 2010 reforms.

All eyes will be on the population of people who opt in by the March 31 deadline, to gauge if their numbers support private insurers’ projections that they priced policies in line with the mix of healthy and sick patients they began covering on Jan. 1.

Companies that drop insurance benefits and direct workers to the exchanges instead, plus rising health costs for many employers are among complaints blamed on the unpopular health law. Not all states are transitioning through the enrollment phase smoothly, suggesting the ACA experience in parts of the country will remain rocky this year.

For Democrats facing voters in November, ACA-related implementation problems will make their contests tougher.

Immigration Reforms (Spring-Early Summer)

Passage of immigration reforms this year depend not on Obama but on House Republicans. If action on piecemeal bills is not progressing by spring in the House, the chances of signing legislation plummet from iffy to not-going-to-happen.

White House advisers say Obama is giving House Speaker John Boehner and the GOP leadership some running room to see what the conference can support. Some candidates are weighing their prospects in GOP primaries, should they support immigration legislation.

House Republicans have rejected a bipartisan Senate-passed measure, along with the president’s preferred “comprehensive” approach to a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers. But sparks of life remain, as Republicans weigh their national electoral vulnerabilities with Hispanic voters.

If no measure reaches Obama’s desk by the end of the year, the legislative push starts over again when a new Congress is sworn in next January.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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