What Obama Will Say in the State of the Union

The details that have leaked about the issues the president will address -- from Afghanistan to nuclear weapons.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

The State of the Union address is the president’s annual opportunity to outline his legislative agenda for the year and to ask Congress to help him achieve those policy goals — an opportunity some leaders have seized on more than others. In 1980, for example, President Jimmy Carter made nine policy requests, while in 2000 Bill Clinton made a record 87.

Presumably, on Tuesday night, Obama will be somewhere in between; he will also, according to senior administration officials, focus on jobs and the economy, which is, after all, what the public wants (in his past four State of the Unions, Obama has spent an average of roughly 23 minutes on the economy and seven minutes on international affairs). But he will likely sprinkle some important foreign-policy issues in as well — ones that could come to define his second term in office. Here’s a primer on what Obama’s advisors have told the press about the topics their boss will raise.


According to administration officials, Obama will mention climate change mostly in an economic context — specifically as it relates to the jobs provided by clean energy research and technological development. While the administration itself has not been more specific, "people who have talked to the administration" have gone a step further, claiming that Obama will likely announce a plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

Granted, people close to people close to Obama are not your typical "reliable source," but at least we know (from the president himself) that climate change will come up on Tuesday. In a speech to House Democrats at their retreat last week, Obama declared that his address will reflect his desire for "an energy agenda that can make us less dependent on foreign oil" and for "the kind of clean energy strategy that will maintain our leadership well into the future." White House aides, meanwhile, have told environmental groups, "You’re going to like what you hear."


The president will also revisit one of his "signature national security objectives" — reducing nuclear arsenals around the world. Though the domestically controversial and globally delicate nature of the effort will preclude Obama from going into specifics on Tuesday night, administration sources have said that the White House is considering a measure that would cut the U.S. arsenal of deployed nuclear weapons from 1,700 to 1,000. (New START already calls for some of those reductions.)

Vice President Joe Biden has also hinted at the nuclear agenda thread in Obama’s coming address. In a speech in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 2, Biden announced that the president’s State of the Union would reflect Obama’s commitment to "advancing a comprehensive nuclear agenda to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, reduce global stockpiles, and secure nuclear materials." Keep an eye out for any last-minute additions to the speech in response to North Korea’s provocative nuclear test on Tuesday.


Immigration is another issue that Obama is likely to bring up in the context of jobs and the economy, where he could highlight the benefits of a legal labor force and the ways in which high-skilled immigrant labor could reinvigorate a sluggish U.S. economy. Obama told labor leaders and immigrant advocates that his address will call for a rewrite of immigration laws, and he informed House Democrats that such a rewrite is a "top and early priority" for his second term. It’s unclear how specific Obama will get in his speech on Tuesday night, but we know what he wants from a comprehensive immigration reform bill: a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, enhanced border security, punishment for businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers, and a streamlined legal immigration system.


Besides the three topics above, administration officials have been rather quiet about the foreign-policy issues that will come up in Tuesday’s speech — a dearth of information that the vice president nicely filled in during his Feb. 2 speech in Munich. The State of the Union, Biden said, will reflect the president’s interest in "strengthening our alliances, which are … essential to our ability to meet our challenges in the 21st century," and in "continuing to take down barriers to trade, including with Europe, to spur growth on both sides of the Atlantic." Obama’s commitment to democracy will not falter in his second term, according to Biden, who asserted that the State of the Union would address the importance of "engaging the democracies in Southeast Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and across the Middle East." Looks like the pivot to Asia is still on track.


With American troops still fighting overseas, Obama will discuss the drawdown of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The president has some decisions to make on that score — in particular the next step in troop reductions and the size of the U.S. force that will remain after the war formally ends. On Tuesday, CNN’s Jake Tapper reported that, according to "sources with knowledge" of the president’s address, Obama will announce Tuesday night that by this time next year, 34,000 troops in Afghanistan will return home, reducing the U.S. military presence in the country by half.

If history is any guide, however, don’t expect the president to spend much time discussing America’s longest war. As Foreign Policy‘s Ty McCormick noted on Monday in a review of State of the Unions since 2011, "Ignoring Afghanistan has become something of a presidential tradition."

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