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Keeping National Security on the Agenda

State of the Union 2010

SOURCE: AP/Jeff Bennett

Television screens broadcast President Obama's State of the Union address.

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One key thing President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address will be remembered for is the much sharper focus it placed on dealing with domestic challenges. In order to remain a leader in the world, America needs to be stronger at home.

Keeping the important national security issues high on the list of America’s public policy debates may be challenging in the coming year—but national security is not likely to fade away. Progressives should remain vigilant to debate the full range of national security questions, even as they engage more deeply in domestic policy debates.

As I mentioned in my initial reaction to the speech at Democracy Arsenal, President Obama spent only about 15 percent of his 2010 State of the Union address discussing traditional national security issues. This is down significantly from the nearly 50 percent that his predecessor President George W. Bush spent on these subjects in his 2008 State of the Union. But Obama’s speech was no retreat to isolationism. In fact, much of the rationale President Obama presented for his domestic program—economy, education, and energy investments—was presented in the context of making sure America remains strong abroad.

The country’s agenda this year will likely focus on health care, the economy at home, and job creation as we head into midterm elections. And this may make it a bigger challenge to have a robust and diverse debate on the pressing national security questions of the day such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Al Qaeda. As the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s report noted last year, coverage on key national security questions such Iraq was in decline in 2008, in large part due to the worst recession since the Great Depression. And national security did not appear to be a major factor in the 2008 election as it was from 2002 to 2004.

Still, national security remains an important issue despite the tall agenda at home. President Obama, multi-tasker-in-chief, proved to be an effective and engaged commander-in-chief in year one. While dealing with all of the troubles left behind by the Bush administration, President Obama outlined an ambitious national security agenda in more than eight major speeches. He also spent more time overseas and visited more countries in his first year than any other president in the country’s history.

As a result, national security remained an important part of the public discourse in 2009, perhaps even more so than in late 2008. Pew hasn’t released its annual report for 2009, but a quick scan of the project’s 2009 weekly index finds that national security was a top issue in the media even with the economic troubles and health care debates at home. National security issues that garnered particular attention last year include the failed terror plot in Detroit in December, Afghanistan in the summer and fall, Iran in the early summer, and ongoing politicized debates on terrorism driven by fringe conservatives throughout the year.

This coming year may represent more of the same, with perhaps a slight shift inwards. But progressives need to remain focused on national security issues for two main reasons. First, time spent wrangling with tough domestic policy issues may serve as an inducement for conservatives to continue to politicize national security questions such as Al Qaeda and Iran. Public polling in the aftermath of the failed Detroit terror attack demonstrated that conservative attempts failed to do much to damage President Obama’s standing on national security. But progressives need to remain engaged in the effort to go head to head with these conservatives who want to undermine America’s security by trying to inject radical shifts or unnecessary actions in places such as Iran or North Korea.

A second reason why progressives need to keep national security at the top of a crowded policy agenda is related to the central argument that President Obama made throughout his first year. Our fate at home is now more than ever interconnected with what happens overseas on a wide range of issues: battling terror networks with a global reach, addressing economic troubles that recognize no national borders, and dealing with climate change and nuclear weapons.

Making sure that America has the right global strategy requires a vigorous debate about our priorities and how we are spending money. This is particularly important in light of the fact that the Obama administration has signed off on one of the largest Pentagon budgets in the country’s history while continuing to talk a good game on “smart power,” putting more resources in development assistance and diplomacy. This will require constructive critiques of the sort like I published on the latest Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy earlier this week, and a debate on whether we can look to cut costs on some of the defense spending.

If you thought 2009 was a busy year with a crowded agenda, 2010 is likely to be even busier. America is going to have its hands full with many issues, and progressives should remain engaged on the public debates over national security this year.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia.

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