Hunt: Barack Obama can build consensus around foreign policy in State of the Union

US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker

US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) applaud as US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 24, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Credit: Getty Images)

Foreign policy may offer U.S. President Barack Obama his best chance to strike a unifying chord in a State of the Union address that would otherwise be dominated by divisive domestic and economic issues.

Specifically, the president should emphasize America's embrace of human and democratic rights, values that transcend parties and administrations. He would echo Jimmy Carter's clarion call for human rights, Ronald Reagan's statements on the oppression of Soviet Jews, Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright's communities of democracy, and George W. Bush's commitment to freedom as he began his second term.

State of the Union speeches aren't the venue for nuance. But the president could acknowledge, with mentions of the Middle East and the troubled Arab Spring, that U.S. values are central to its foreign policy, even though furthering this ideal is never easy, and success may not be near.


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Even Senator John McCain, in a grouchy mood, would applaud.

The so-called pivot to Asia and the troubled Middle East have been the dominant themes of the Obama administration's foreign policy. In his speech, the president would do well to pay tribute to Europe, a signal that even as the U.S. faces new challenges it won't ignore old allies and alliances.

A call for a trans-Atlantic free-trade zone would be compelling, even if there are doubts whether Europe's tenuous financial condition makes that a realistic goal now.

A commitment to more aggressive promotion of global trade pacts captures America's can-do essence, offers a positive economic message and appeals to more than a few Republicans.

The president is certain to pay tribute to the military, as he should after a national election that largely avoided mention of the tens of thousands of men and women in uniform who risk their lives every day in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Obama should offer a new GI Bill of Rights for veterans returning to a still recovering economy.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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