Rory Kinane
Manager, US and the Americas Programme
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address contained a resounding message for the international community: the focus on ’nation building at home’ – and an America less willing to use force abroad – would continue. Though he faces being stymied by Congressional elections and partisan paralysis, action on immigration, trade and Iran is still possible. This could make 2014 a big year for the president.

Though the speech focused largely on domestic issues, President Obama’s address reiterated a clear message for the wider world: the US will not commit further resources abroad unless forced. The president made explicit that America could not afford to engage in ‘open-ended conflicts’. To those that viewed Libya, Mali and Syria as aberrations in US policy, the message was pointedly that this approach would continue.

Diplomacy was stressed repeatedly by Obama. In contrast to what could be termed ‘domestic unilateralism’ (the promise to use executive orders where Congress is intransigent), the focus was clearly on multilateralism and negotiation abroad. Obama made apparent that he believes the US cannot perform the role of global policeman, but unlike some past presidents, he seems to really mean it.

Perhaps tellingly, President Obama’s most concrete promise of foreign policy action was not a new initiative, but the commitment to definitively end the war in Afghanistan after 2014. He outlined his concern for countries in the Middle East, such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq, but reaffirmed his commitment to maintain the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.

Three Issues to Watch in 2014

Interestingly, the biggest areas to watch in 2014 are those that Obama barely mentioned in his remarks: immigration, trade and negotiations with Iran.

On immigration, President Obama looks keen to pass a measure that would address one of America’s most intractable problems, on an issue that unites his party and divides his opponents. House Speaker John Boehner and other reform-minded Republicans have an arduous challenge in convincing a meaningful contingent of their party to pass a bill in this area.

But Boehner and Republicans eyeing a 2016 presidential bid will be cognisant of the fact that this is an important issue for Latino voters. The Republican share of the Latino vote has declined at every presidential election since 2004, while the demographic weight of these voters in key states such as Florida and Texas is increasing.

Trade, on the other hand, is an issue that largely unites Republicans and divides Democrats. The continent-bridging trade deals of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have much reduced chances of success if the president does not receive ‘fast-track’ or trade promotion authority from Congress.

It is not yet obvious whether Republican desires for increased trade will outweigh the desire to obstruct President Obama. It is also not apparent how Democrats will react or on what timeline the negotiations will be completed (or not). However, if even one of these two deals is complete, it would secure a strong legacy for Obama’s second term.

President Obama also pushed Congress for time and space to negotiate with Iran and threatened to veto any new sanctions while talks are ongoing.  Several Democratic senators have stated their opposition to new sanctions since the address. So while preventing a Congressional consensus on new sanctions and simultaneously moving Iran away from the nuclear path will not be an easy task, his strategy may already be paying off.

A Limited Domestic Agenda

The main part of the speech dealt with domestic issues, in particular inequality and the economy. However, the president’s agenda was remarkably subdued; he has clearly lowered his expectations given his inability to get most of his 2013 State of the Union initiatives through Congress. In contrast to last year’s ambitious pledges on gun control, Wall Street reform and marriage equality, this speech focused on a somewhat messy and limited action list, to be achieved largely through  executive orders. Promises, such as raising the minimum wage for federal workers, were accompanied by pleas for Congress to move forward with related legislation (again).

The president repeated again and again his willingness to ‘act on [his] own’ and exclude Congress if it  is obstructionist. It is difficult to predict how Republicans will respond to this challenge given their internal division, which was highlighted by the four separate responses to the address from different factions of the party.

A Legacy Year?

President Obama has underscored his commitment to diplomacy and a US that will not unnecessarily extend itself abroad. In a year set to be dominated by mid-term elections it is quite possible that little will be achieved by Capitol Hill or the White House. Nevertheless, in the areas of immigration, trade and negotiations with Iran, 2014 might prove to be a year that significantly shapes Obama’s legacy.

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