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Tonight President Obama will make his third State of the Union address with the expectation that its themes will be largely driven by electoral considerations.  I agree, but Obama also addresses the public as the sitting president; he must strike the right balance between incumbent and candidate.

Given the dual purposes of the speech, here are my expectations on what he may say with regard to foreign policy and development issues.

  • First, don’t expect a lot on foreign policy.  A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Americans are more concerned about domestic issues this year than they have been in the last 15 years.  While a similar poll last year reported that respondents were evenly split on wanting to hear the President speak on both domestic and foreign issues, this year an overwhelming 81% want to focus on domestic policy.
  • Nevertheless, there are some foreign policy issues he must address.  (Unsurprisingly, foreign assistance will probably not be one of them.)  Expect some of these themes to be touched on: protecting the nation from terrorism; congratulatory words on Iraq; warnings on Iran; delicately balanced verbiage on Pakistan and Afghanistan; and a commitment to Arab Spring countries.
  • The economy will dominate.  No surprise here.  In the context of public anxiety about jobs, growth and public spending, watch for what he says about the 2013 budget.  Originally due for February 6, the budget’s release has been pushed back by one week.  The speech won’t contain details, but will likely include broad objectives and perhaps some more detailed nuggets.  I will have a forthcoming budget preview blog, but for now keep in mind that because the Deficit Reduction Super Committee was unable to reach a deal, the international affairs budget goes from the security budget category to non-security.  That means State and Foreign Operations goes from competing for dollars against defense to competing against domestic programs; not a great scenario in an election year.
  • Expect at least a passing reference to government reorganization.  In last year’s address, Obama promised to reorganize some government agencies that work on U.S. competiveness.  One year later, the administration released a proposal to combine some smaller agencies (Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Export-Import Bank, and the Trade and Development Agency) into a super-sized Department of Commerce.  This proposal has elicited criticism from those who think OPIC doesn’t fit, concerns that development agencies shouldn’t be included with trade offices, and calls that USTR doesn’t belong.
  • To accomplish any reorganization, the administration will submit to Congress general language giving it fast-track authority to reorganize agencies – that means expedited Congressional consideration.  It is likely the requested authority, which will need to demonstrate cost savings as a central purpose, will not be linked to the trade agency consolidation plan.  If Congress agrees, and that’s not assured, then expect other reorganization plans.  But don’t expect anything related to foreign policy agencies in the near future.  Yes, it’s an election year thing.
  • Don’t expect Members to sit in the House Chamber without regard to party as they did last year.  There’s too much at stake this year to even pretend to be bipartisan.

I know many of you will be watching tonight at CGD’s SOTU Bingo.  Consider this your crib sheet and good luck to all.