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FP’s Handy State of the Union Viewing Guide

This will be one of Obama’s last State of the Unions, and one of the most challenging.

President Obama Delivers State Of The Union Address At U.S. Capitol
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 28, 2014.

As his approval ratings jump to as high as 50 percent thanks to a growing economy and steadily declining unemployment, President Barack Obama is expected to focus heavily on domestic policy in tonight’s State of the Union address rather than on foreign policy, where crises around the world have raised doubts about the administration’s capacity to handle challenges ranging from the Islamic State to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

White House aides say the president will announce proposals to make community college free and to cut taxes on the middle class by raising them on wealthier Americans. Neither idea is expected to go anywhere in a Congress where the Senate is now controlled by Republicans and where the House has the largest Republican majority since World War II.

On foreign policy, Obama could find himself with unusually large numbers of Republican allies if he announces a harsher military line against the Islamic State, which continues to gain territory in Syria and Iraq, or announces expanded NSA surveillance. Most GOP lawmakers, though, are likely to point to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris as evidence that the terrorism threat has grown on Obama’s watch. They also remain resolutely opposed to his nuclear talks with Iran and his diplomatic outreach to Cuba.

This will be one of Obama’s last State of the Unions, and one of the most challenging. If one looks around the globe, it’s hard to find many parts of the world that have improved since last year. The challenge for the president tonight will be to figure out which of those crises to acknowledge, which to announce that he has a strategy to deal with, and which to ignore.

Below is a guide to what the president is likely to talk about — and the state of play facing him on each issue as he confronts enemies abroad and implacable political foes at home.

Countering the Islamic State

Obama’s address to a widely watched joint session of Congress may be the best opportunity for the president to present an update on the ongoing fight against the Islamic State as well as some indications on how he plans to resolve the stalemate in Syria since he authorized airstrikes against the militant group last September.

Although the Obama administration has doubled the number of American troops being sent to Iraq — to as many as 3,100 — to train and advise the Iraqi Army in its fight against the Islamic State, the overall effort to defeat the militant group is still a work in progress.

After the U.S.-led coalition has flown several thousand aerial sorties and struck about 1,700 Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, the group’s strongholds in Syria remain largely intact and the territory it holds inside Iraq is yet to be taken back by Iraqi forces. The Pentagon has said the Iraqi Army may be ready to mount a large counteroffensive against the Islamic State only by early summer.

The Syrian side of the equation has remained vague, with Syria’s once-beleaguered president, Bashar al-Assad, regaining some strength as the world’s attention is focused on defeating the Islamic State instead of removing him. The Obama administration’s plan to recruit and train Syrian opposition forces to fight both Assad’s forces and the Islamic State has barely taken off, and it may be several more months before a trained rebel force is in place.

Several Arab nations in the U.S.-led coalition remain skeptical of the Obama administration’s long-term plans for Syria, fearing that they may leave Assad in place. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, which have backed rebels fighting Assad, fear that leaving him in power even if he’s only governing a small part of Syria would signal to his backer Iran that its strategy has paid off.

Obama and his advisors have cautioned that the fight against the Islamic State will be a years-long effort. Watch for how the president explains progress in the fight and whether he offers any clues as to how his team plans to resolve the dilemma in Syria.

Iran’s Nuclear Program

Securing a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program remains one of the most significant legacy-building achievements within the president’s reach. However, most Republicans and a not-insignificant number of Democrats abhor the international negotiations taking place in Vienna and seek to pass new legislation that could upend the fragile talks.

The most aggressive legislation in the works would automatically impose new sanctions on Iran if a comprehensive deal on Tehran’s nuclear program doesn’t emerge after the self-imposed June 30 deadline. That legislation, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), was scheduled to be voted out of the Senate Banking Committee this week, but the top Democrat on the panel, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, pushed the meeting back to next week. “I don’t know what the hurry is except for Mitch McConnell’s politics,” he told reporters on Tuesday. Brown said he wanted to give the panel enough time to receive a classified briefing from the administration on the subject. Earlier this month, the president vowed to veto the Menendez-Kirk legislation, saying it would damage Western diplomatic efforts.

“There is no good argument for us to undercut, undermine the negotiations until they play out,” Obama said at a press conference last week. He noted that if a deal is not reached that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, “I would be the first one to come to Congress to say we need to tighten the screws.”

The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, is also working on separate legislation that would require the Senate to vote on a joint resolution of disapproval if a final nuclear deal were reached — a measure that is viewed as less hostile to the ongoing talks.

Watch for the president to challenge both Democrats and Republicans on the importance of giving diplomacy a chance.

NSA Reform

What a difference a year makes. President Obama delivered last year’s State of the Union in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of Americans (not to mention much of the rest of the world’s population). “Working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs — because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated,” he said.

Since then, the Snowden leaks have faded from the headlines, the Islamic State has overrun much of Iraq and Syria, Islamist gunmen have terrorized Paris, more terrorist plots have emerged in Belgium, and the Islamic State has hacked U.S. Central Command’s Twitter feed.

Thus the focus in tonight’s speech is more likely to be on security — and particularly cybersecurity — than on protecting Americans from government overreach in the area of surveillance.

“I’ve got a State of the Union next week,” Obama told members of Congress at a White House meeting on Jan. 13. “One of the things we’re going to be talking about is cybersecurity. With the Sony attack that took place, with the Twitter account that was hacked by Islamist jihadist sympathizers yesterday, it just goes to show how much more work we need to do, both public and private sector, to strengthen our cybersecurity.”

While cybersecurity is a potential area of agreement between the president and Republicans, many doubt the prospects for substantial NSA reform in the next two years.

Energy Independence

As he has in recent years, Obama will almost certainly stress the big achievements the United States has made in recent years in the energy sector, which has gotten both more productive and cleaner on his watch.

He’ll likely defend the administration’s “all-of-the-above” approach to energy production, which includes oil and natural gas, and also a lot more clean energy, as a way to try to rally support for the administration’s goals of further fighting climate change. While it’s true that U.S. oil and natural gas production has skyrocketed since 2008, that’s mostly a private-sector success story; the White House can crow with more reason about the concurrent boom in renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, which is underpinned by government financial support.

Expect the president to make the case for controversial environmental rules, such as ones being finalized that aim to clean up the electric-power sector, that will serve as his chief environmental legacy. Like Obamacare, the administration’s climate change efforts face vocal opposition in a now-Republican Congress and the possibility of a judicial reverse.

Watch to see how Obama frames the economic benefits of the U.S. energy transformation. Oil and gasoline are a lot cheaper now, which generally helps consumers and the wider economy. But cheaper oil is also hammering oil-producing (and Republican) states such as Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota.

A final point to watch for: Will Obama reiterate the continued need for U.S. engagement in the Middle East, where the United States has shepherded global oil flows for decades? The United States needs less and less oil from the Middle East, and many at home and in the region want (or fear) the United States drifting away from engagement there. In recent years, Obama has defended the U.S. role as the global umbrella for energy security, but that might be a harder argument to make as defense budgets shrink.

Closing Guantánamo

One of the most glaringly unfulfilled promises of Obama’s presidency remains the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, which he vowed to shutter during his campaign for the White House. In recent months, he has accelerated the transfer of detainees from the prison to foreign host countries, bringing the number of prisoners down to 122 from a high of 680.

Although the detainees were all cleared for transfer in an interagency process that included the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department, Republicans oppose the executive action and have introduced new legislation that would prevent the administration from transferring Gitmo detainees. “The administration seems to be more interested in emptying and closing Guantánamo rather than protecting the national security interests of the United States and the lives of Americans,” charged Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) this month.

Look for the president to appeal to Congress for help in removing restrictions that prevent the transfer of detainees to the United States for prosecution and detention — a request Obama’s former Gitmo czar says is the only way to close the prison.

The Defense Budget

When asked last week by a soldier what the biggest challenge facing the military is in 2015, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded, “the uncertainty of our budgets.” The military was spared sequestration — or automatic spending cuts — in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 thanks to the Murray-Ryan budget deal of December 2013. But the spending caps return with a vengeance in fiscal year 2016, which begins Oct. 1, and that has defense officials losing sleep at night. Now they are urging Congress to lift the spending caps once again, arguing that the caps are too deep and too arbitrary.

Meanwhile, the White House is expected to unveil a budget in February that ignores the budget caps. The Pentagon’s portion of the proposed budget is expected to be $36 billion higher than the cap. While the Obama administration is clearly against sequestration and supports a bigger defense budget, it is tough politically for a Democratic president to argue for more defense spending in a high-profile speech like the State of the Union address.

When sequestration was hanging over the military’s head in 2013, the president did use his State of the Union address to warn that the spending cuts would harm military readiness, but he also said it would be a bad idea to spare defense by cutting more deeply into things like “education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits.” Instead, he argued, Congress should tackle tax reform, a step that would generate savings that could reduce the deficit rather than cut more deeply into discretionary spending accounts, including the Defense Department’s budget. The White House has signaled that tax reform will be a part of tonight’s speech, so it’s possible the president will frame the problem the same way he did two years ago.

Russia

As Obama surveys the world in his penultimate State of the Union speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and his annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine are likely to rank among the biggest disappointments and foreign-policy failures of the administration.

If Obama mentions Russia in his comments, look for how he frames it because a push for better ties with Moscow was one of Obama’s earliest foreign-policy moves. Obama had hoped that he could move beyond an adversarial U.S.-Russia relationship that had deteriorated near the end of George W. Bush’s administration. In July 2009, just months into his first term, Obama called for a “reset” in relations that would be more than just a “fresh start” and would lead to more cooperation between the two countries.

Obama’s call for closer ties with Moscow came just a year after Russia had invaded Georgia with impunity. Despite warnings from several Central and Eastern European leaders that NATO was weak and countries in the region were worried about Russia, the Obama administration went ahead with its proposal for a reset only to see relations continue to worsen as Washington pursued anti-missile systems in parts of Europe — actions that Moscow opposed.

As Obama was preparing to run for a second term, he was caught on camera telling then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that a victory in the November 2012 election would give him more flexibility to make a deal with Russia on missile defense.

But by November 2013, Ukraine was starting to slip into crisis after, under pressure from Moscow, suspending trade talks with the European Union in order to seek closer ties with Russia. A popular protest against such moves led to the ouster of then President Viktor Yanukovych. By mid-February 2014 — about a year after Obama took office for his second term — Yanukovych had fled Ukraine, and by the end of February 2014 Moscow had invaded and annexed Crimea.*

Since then, U.S.-Russia relations have plunged to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, with a series of U.S.-led economic and financial sanctions designed to hurt the Russian economy as punishment for its aggression, even as Washington seeks Moscow’s help in dealing with global crises ranging from curbing Iran’s nuclear program to finding a way out of the civil war in Syria. Putin, meanwhile, has continued to funnel aid and weapons to separatists in eastern Ukraine and shows no signs of giving back Crimea.

Bashing Putin will be an easy applause line for the president. After the speech, though, listen for Republicans to put the blame for the strongman’s aggression squarely on the president and his failed reset.

*Correction, Jan. 20, 2015: Ukraine suspended trade talks with the European Union in November 2013, not November 2012, as an earlier version of this article mistakenly implied. Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine, and Russia annexed Crimea, in February 2014 — not one month after Barack Obama began his second term, as an earlier version of this article mistakenly stated. (Return to reading.)

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