WASHINGTON -- In his first State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama has told the American people that eight years of war in Afghanistan and nearly seven years of war in Iraq are coming to an end.
But he devoted most of his annual address to Congress to detailing how he plans to strengthen the struggling U.S. economy and put unemployed Americans back to work.
President Obama ran for the U.S. presidency as an antiwar candidate and in his address late on January 27, he said his administration was successfully winding down the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even though his first year in office saw him order 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to help defeat the Taliban insurgency, Obama said he's confident that an end to the fighting is in sight.
"In Afghanistan, we're increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home," Obama said.
"We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans, men and women alike."
As for the Iraq war -- a war Obama opposed from the start, when he was still a senator in the legislature of the central state of Illinois -- that, too, is ending, he said.
"As we take the fight to Al-Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as president," Obama said.
"We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August. We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and we will continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity."
Obama also highlighted another accomplishment in foreign affairs: the imminent achievement of a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I.
On January 26, officials at the Russian Foreign Ministry said negotiators for a START II treaty likely would reach agreement within weeks. On January 27, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke substantively by telephone about the talks, including signing a new treaty "in the near future," according to official Russian media.
Obama pointed to that and a coming meeting of world leaders to secure the world's nuclear materials as two of the major foreign policy successes of his first year in the White House.
"To reduce our stockpiles and launchers, while ensuring our deterrent, the United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades," Obama said.
"And at April's Nuclear Security Summit, we will bring forty-four nations together here in Washington, D.C., behind a clear goal: securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years, so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists."
Threats From North Korea, Iran
Obama said the negotiations with Russia and similar foreign initiatives have made the United States more credible in the international community in dealing with threats from countries such as North Korea and Iran.
"That's why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions -- sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That's why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise," Obama said.
For the most part, however, Obama focused on the U.S. economy. Technically, according to many economists, the U.S. recession is over. But unemployment is what these same economists call a "lagging indicator" -- meaning that business may be improving, but employers are still too cautious to resume hiring.
As a result, unemployment has exceeded 10 percent in the United States, and many Americans blame Obama for spending too much of his energy during the past year on a broad reform of the nation's health care system, as well as on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Polls show Americans evenly split on whether Obama's doing a good job or a bad job. This is bad news for a president who spent his first months in office with approval ratings above 75 percent.
Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York, says that's why Obama spent so much of this annual speech expressing concern over the state of the U.S. economy and laying out his plans for tax credits, tax cuts, and other programs that he says will stimulate job creation.
"The economy is the number-one concern, as polls have shown, among Americans generally. And also there's a related sense that President Obama has not spent enough time focusing on the economy and that he may have suffered politically as a result," Spitzer said.
"So he really wants to turn the focus on the economy, where unemployment is still at 10 percent, job growth has been very slow, and the economy has indeed been slow to recover."
Spitzer says Americans are weary of foreign entanglements after eight years of war in Afghanistan and nearly seven years of war in Iraq. They have their own needs, he says, and expect their government to focus its attention on them.
Nevertheless, Spitzer says Obama has a right to be proud of some of his efforts in foreign policy over the past year, particularly improving relations with Russia, which soured during the eight years of Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.
Spitzer notes that Moscow reacted very positively when the United States announced it was abandoning Bush's plan for a missile shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic. Now, he says, Obama is building on that effort to achieve a START II treaty and to properly secure all the nuclear-weapon materials held by both countries.
"Russia, of course, is no longer the foe that it was, but there are still animosities and mistrust, and there are still many nuclear weapons in the world, so it seems like a very positive step, I think, for all parties," Spitzer said.
But Spitzer notes that successes like these will barely be noticed by Americans if Obama and the politically divided Congress can't agree to work together to fix the country's economy.