Out of Sight, Out of Mind

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images.)

Before he was president, Joe Biden’s main experience in politics was in national security. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chosen by Barack Obama as his running mate to mitigate Obama’s manifest lack of foreign policy experience. And yet, experts pondering whether there is a “Biden doctrine” profess confusion, and recent polls assessing support for the president’s handling of foreign policy hover around a 40 percent approval rating. In short, many don’t really know what he’s doing or what he stands for globally, but they’re pretty sure they don’t like it, whatever it is.

That’s bad news for the leader of the free world, and White House officials privately admit frustration. Here’s the answer: At this week’s State of the Union, Biden—in keeping with his predecessor and embracing a clear trend since the last years of the Cold War—barely mentioned national security. Indeed, he hardly ever does.  

The wayback machine makes clear this was not always the case for U.S. presidents. Ronald Reagan gave multiple “addresses to the nation” on national security topics ranging from defense spending to the-then Polish government’s repression of its people to the Palestine Liberation Organization presence in Lebanon to arms control and negotiations with the Soviets. A rough count of Reagan’s major speeches that touched on foreign policy and defense totals 29, including on such recondite topics as drug trafficking, the release of hijacking hostages, and the critical importance of shipping routes in Central America. 

George H.W. Bush was slightly less loquacious, with about nine “addresses to the nation” on a variety of national security topics, including U.S. forces headed to Panama, the deployment of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia on the occasion of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a further speech on the “crisis in the Persian Gulf,” another address 11 days later on military action in the Gulf (Operation Desert Storm), and yet another on suspension of military action in the Gulf. Fair enough, there was a war, but surely there are wars going on now as well.

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