WASHINGTON — America is fighting two wars, guarding against Islamic fanaticism and nuclear terrorism, and struggling to cope with a deep global recession.
These matters are real and insistent, and resist any flip suggestion that, because they were barely mentioned by President Barack Obama in his address to Congress last night, they’ve been relegated to the backseat of American priorities.
Through what he chose to say — and what he chose not to say — Obama demonstrated how gravely he views the threat posed by the faltering U.S. economy.
It is clear that economic revival will be the overarching construct for his presidency, a prism through which other dangers are assessed.
And it is difficult not to foresee — in the emphasis Obama placed on jobs, and debt, and banks, and schools and health care — that America’s role in the world will be less adventurous in the coming months, and more tethered to home.
For evidence, look no further than Obama’s announcement that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will no longer be “off budget” in the federal governmental bookkeeping.
As a sign of its resolve, the Bush administration had put its global war on terror in a special category, as if to say, "Cost is not an issue." Obama has shifted the war's cost back into the main federal budget, as if to say, "Yes it is."
“For seven years, we have been a nation at war,” Obama said. “No longer will we hide its price.”
With a few notable exceptions, America’s foreign policy goals were defined in a domestic context last night.
Obama challenged this Congress to create a complex cap-and-trade system to combat global warming not out of international obligation, but as something “absolutely critical to our economic future.”
And it is hard to see how the president’s announced goal to cut the annual budget deficit in half could be met without a plan that, as Obama said, “leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war,” while cutting back spending on Pentagon weapons systems.
Obama promised to enlarge the Army and Marine Corps “to relieve the strain” on the military, and on military families — not to build new divisions for a new crusade.
Certainly, Obama promised that “I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens half a world away.” He has demonstrated, by choosing an experienced and energetic national security team, that he does not view foreign policy as a sideshow. And, surely, he’s audacious.
A president who treats America’s health care mess as just another item on a first term checklist is a president who, if one of his storied envoys returns from overseas with a scent of a deal, might just add a huge, risky peace initiative to his agenda.
But for now, “the world depends on us to have a strong economy,” Obama said. And the tools he promised to deploy — trade, envoys, alliances, values — were those of diplomats and businessmen, not crusaders.
After Obama’s economic agenda — to bail out banks, auto companies and homeowners; to make health care more accessible; to invest in new scientific and energy technologies; and to “ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education” — there seems little left in the federal coffers for expensive forays overseas.
Particularly if he keeps his promise that only the rich will foot the bill, and that families earning less than $250,000 a year will pay “not one single dime” in higher taxes.
China and Germany and Japan and Korea were lauded for investing in their economies, and were held up as models we should emulate — not rivals to be confronted, or obsequious junior partners in some new American enterprise.
The world’s dangers are serious, and intrusive. Last night Obama argued that a nation planning to meet such tests abroad must first rebuild at home.
Read more from John Aloysius Farrell: