Tonight, as he delivers his third State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama will stress economics. And that makes good political sense. Election Day is just nine months away, and jobs dwarf all other public concerns. Indeed, it must unnerve the White House that no president in the modern era has been reelected while unemployment stood above 7.2 percent. Today, it hovers around 8.5 percent.

What the president says about foreign policy, however, will be equally important to his reelection chances. With more than 40 million viewers expected to tune into the speech -- the largest audience he will have until he addresses the Democratic National Convention in September -- he has an unparalleled opportunity to argue that his handling of foreign policy merits a second term. He will surely make the most of it.

The good news for Obama is that he can talk about foreign policy, unlike the economy, from a position of strength. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 48 percent of Americans surveyed approved of his handling of foreign policy compared to 35 percent who did not. The same poll found even greater support for how he has handled the terrorist threat, with six out of ten Americans polled giving him a thumbs up. That is his reward for putting Osama bin Laden at the bottom of the Arabian Sea.

But the president also knows that he cannot simply rest on his laurels. Foreign policy wild cards could still derail his campaign, especially since his margin of error on the economy is slim. He might get a free pass in the event of a truly unforeseen event -- think former President George W. Bush and 9/11 -- but the public is not likely to be as forgiving if the crisis is one that his critics have warned about for months. Obama will undoubtedly use the speech to show that he understands the perils that the United States faces abroad and is taking prudent steps to anticipate the worst.

On that score, Obama will be looking to tout his successes and give himself some political protection on five issues in particular. 

The first is Iran, which might be Obama's greatest foreign policy vulnerability. The Republican presidential candidates, with the notable exception of Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), have pummeled him for not confronting Tehran more vigorously about its nuclear activities. And these charges have hit their mark: a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that the American public disapproves of his handling of Iran by a large margin. 

Obama's saving grace is that Americans are not paying much attention to Iran right now. To limit the political damage to his campaign in the event that they start to, he will undoubtedly reiterate a firm commitment to keeping the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He will likely point to his success in building the broad-based international coalition that is currently poised to impose crippling sanctions on Iran. He will also note that his persistent diplomacy has persuaded even Beijing to join the chorus of voices warning Tehran against going nuclear. Finally, he will surely repeat what has become his administration's well-worn talking point: When it comes to Iran's nuclear program, all options are on the table.

The second issue is Israel. It is no secret that Obama's relations with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been strained. The White House's May 2009 call for a halt to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank backfired, and the administration eventually repudiated the idea. That mishandled initiative, and concerns over Obama's response to Iran's nuclear program, have given life to Republican charges that the president wavers in his support for Israel. GOP candidates now see an opportunity to pick up the votes and campaign contributions of Jewish Americans, who lean heavily Democratic.

To be sure, Obama long ago recognized that he has a political problem on this issue. His response has been to talk less about Palestinian statehood and more about his unyielding commitment to defend Israel. The State of the Union address should express more of the same.

Regarding the war in Afghanistan, Obama's surge policy has left both conservatives and liberals dissatisfied. The former complain that he undercut the surge by beginning to draw down U.S. forces before the Taliban were defeated. The latter assert that he never should have surged troops in the first place.

Fortunately for Obama, the conservative complaints about his Afghanistan policy are not resonating with the American public now -- and are not likely to in the future. According to Quinnipiac University and CNN/ORC International surveys, two out of three Americans oppose the war. So Obama will likely stress that he is winding down the United States' involvement in Afghanistan in a deliberate and responsible fashion that transfers authority to the Afghans themselves while protecting U.S. national security interests. 

For their part, Republican presidential candidates (again, with the exception of Paul) have also been warning that Obama made a grievous error in removing all U.S. troops from Iraq. As evidence, they point to the rising sectarian violence there. Yet there is no sign that these criticisms are making an impact. Obama will likely argue that, as in Afghanistan, he prudently drew down the U.S. presence and that the Iraqis now bear the burden of securing their own freedom and prosperity. Effectively, he will use his speech to try to relieve his administration of any responsibility for what happens next in Iraq.

The State of the Union address will surely not end without mention of North Korea. Kim Jong Il's death last month has led to great uncertainty over what comes next in a country that is unpredictable in the best of circumstances. The GOP presidential candidates have mostly been silent on the transition in Pyongyang. That may be because they, like most everyone else, do not have a policy in their pockets that has a high likelihood of success. Obama's response will probably be to underscore the severity of the North Korean threat while holding out the hope that Pyongyang will moderate its behavior.

State of the Union addresses often sound like laundry lists of topics and ideas. But regardless of which foreign policy issues Obama mentions, the key to understanding the speech is to recognize that it is the opening salvo in what will undeniably be a heated election campaign. In the months ahead, Republican candidates will be looking to take the shine off of one of the relatively bright spots of Obama's presidency. Obama, in turn, will be making the case that he has triumphed against tough odds and, as such, remains the country's best bet in a dangerous and complex world.

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  • JAMES M. LINDSAY is Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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