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Out of Sight, Out of Mind
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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Presidents are increasingly reticent to talk about national security. No wonder Americans are less engaged.

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.

Armchair historians might note that George H.W. Bush was the last president of the Cold War era, and that it is not unreasonable to assume that with “the end of history,” there would be a corresponding diminution of major national security addresses. Not so! Bill Clinton’s “assertive multilateralism” actually resulted in accelerating U.S. engagement in heretofore ignored corners of the globe. Thus, President Clinton treated the nation to at least 10 “major” speeches on topics ranging from Somalia to Iraq to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Sudan.

It’s true that during Clinton’s eight years in office, the United States did go to war repeatedly—under NATO or United Nations cover. Then again, many of his national security speeches were simply explaining why the Pentagon struck terrorist training sites. In other words, the fact that there were no U.S. “boots on the ground” did not deter Clinton from explaining the nation’s defense posture to the American people.

George W. Bush originally modeled himself as a more “humble” leader internationally, less eager than Clinton to jump into every single fray. But then came 9/11. Because of those attacks and the two wars that flowed from them, Bush’s original game plan was derailed. Another rough count finds he gave 18 major “addresses to the nation” on national security, with almost weekly smaller speeches at military bases, overseas, and wherever the spirit moved. Bush believed, as his speechwriter (and my podcast co-host) Marc Thiessen explains, that if the nation was at war, he should be front and center explaining the stakes at every turn. That was not how his successor, Barack Obama, saw it.

Obama defined himself from the very outset as the anti-Bush—the ender, not the maker, of wars. And his handful of national security speeches centered on that favored topic: ending the U.S. presence in Iraq, closing the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (though he never did), talking about revolutionary change in Egypt (but disclosing no American interests or preferences in that country). On Syria and Libya, the president made cursory but explanatory remarks, as he did on why he believed his nuclear deal with Iran was the right choice for the country and when SEAL Team 6 eliminated Osama bin Laden.

For a man who enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of office and the moniker of commander in chief, Donald Trump was surprisingly reticent on national security matters. While his administration ushered in a sea change in U.S.-China relations, the president made no major address on the matter. He did make a “major” speech on Afghanistan and other matters early in his term, but little beyond desultory commentary and tweets came afterward. Indeed, for a president who ripped up Obama’s nuclear deal, launched military action in Syria, set the stage for Biden’s subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan, and upended U.S. Asia policy, Donald Trump didn’t say much. Enter Biden, who says even less.

Biden has always been known for his logorrheic affection for the bully pulpit. On Capitol Hill, he was known to clear a room like few others when his promised minutes of remarks stretched endlessly. But when it comes to national security, much of his presidency looks like this week’s SOTU—long on domestic concerns, short on foreign policy. Biden’s speech began at 9 p.m. and it was not until 10:06 that he mentioned the ongoing war in Ukraine; China got short shrift, but more mention than Russia (only Putin gets a nod). The suffering people of Iran got nothing. The women and girls of Afghanistan whom Biden abandoned to the predations of the Taliban got nothing. Even the disastrous earthquake in Turkey failed to merit a sentence fragment of sympathy or interest.

Is it any wonder that public support for America’s leadership role in the world is collapsing? That military recruitment is at historic lows? That isolationists on the left and right are challenging even the slow-rolling support the Biden administration has offered Ukrainians fighting for their own freedom? That right-wing and left-wing fringe types alike are eager for cuts to the U.S. defense budget? There is ample evidence to suggest that poll numbers for various national security priorities improve when the president explains the issues regularly and consistently to the American people. There’s also the evidence of our own eyes that Biden is unusually passionate when he talks foreign policy. So why doesn’t he?

The behind-the-scenes decision making that goes into presidential speeches is far from transparent. However, given the president’s own comfort zone, his background and personal interest in national security issues, we can only assume that somehow the Biden team believes the American people don’t want to hear about foreign policy. Fair enough; but if so, it’s no surprise that the public believes that national security doesn’t count for much. At the White House, clearly, it doesn’t.

Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.