Foreign Policy and Obama's State of the Union Address

The Political Calculations Behind the Speech

(Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

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

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