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Despite Domestic Focus, Obama to Address Foreign Policy Concerns in Speech


President Barack Obama will deliver his annual State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday night, in Washington, Jan. 20, 2015.

President Barack Obama is expected to focus on domestic issues in his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night in Washington, but ongoing crises around the world will give him reason to update Americans on U.S. foreign policy efforts.

The terror attacks earlier this month in France and in Australia last month, the face-off in Europe between Ukraine with Russia, and ongoing unrest in the Middle East are sobering reminders for Obama that foreign policy remains a top priority in his agenda.

Fast-paced international developments involving Islamist extremists are forcing greater attention to security matters at home and abroad.

Recently, there have been a shoot-out in Belgium, police raids in Germany, arrests in Greece, and stepped-up security across Europe -- all following the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7.

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Republican opposition

State of the Union: Historical Facts

Why do presidents give a State of the Union address?

The U.S. Constitution requires the president "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Article II, Section 3, Clause 1.

State of the Union facts:

  • George Washington gave the first State of the Union address in 1790.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt coined the phrase "State of the Union" for the message and the address in the 1940s, and it became the popular phrasing from then on.
  • Calvin Coolidge gave the first radio broadcast of the address in 1923.
  • Harry Truman gave the first televised address in 1947.
  • George W. Bush was the first president to make the address available live on the Internet in 2002.
  • The first official, televised opposition response to a president’s annual message occurred in 1966, according to the website. Since 1982, it has become customary for the opposition party, usually members of Congress, to provide responses.
  • Ronald Reagan was the first president to invite special guests to sit beside the first lady and recognize them during the speech, in 1982.

Source: AP,

​Obama will likely use his televised address Tuesday to update the nation on the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and the efforts by several thousand U.S. troops sent to Iraq to act as advisers for its military.

The president and Secretary of State John Kerry have said that it will take years to defeat the Islamist group.

Iran and nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and five other world powers will likely be discussed as well.

Last week, Obama warned the Republican-controlled Congress to hold off placing new sanctions on Iran, saying penalties at this point could derail negotiations and raise the risk of war. He also threatened to veto any bill calling for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

To defend Cuba decision

The president is expected to defend his decision to seek to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba after a 50-year break.

On Monday, a senior State Department official said the U.S. would urge Cuba to lift travel restrictions and agree to re-establishing U.S. and Cuban embassies in historic talks in Havana this week.

However, Republicans -- led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who is a leading congressional opponent of the shift in policy regarding the Communist nation -- have been sharply critical of the move.

This year, one of Obama's guests to the speech will be Alan Gross, the Maryland man who recently returned to the U.S. after being imprisoned in Cuba for five years.

Among the foreign policy successes Obama is likely to tout will be the end of the war in Afghanistan and the deployment of hundreds of U.S. troops to help fight Ebola in West Africa.

Domestic agenda

The president has already announced most of the domestic agenda items he plans to discuss Tuesday.

He has called for increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans; raising taxes on profits individuals make from selling assets such as stocks, bonds and real estate; ending tax breaks for inherited estates worth millions of dollars, and imposing a fee on the country's biggest financial firms.

Obama said he wants to use the revenues -- estimated at $320 billion over the next 10 years -- to offset tax breaks for middle-income Americans and for initiatives such as free tuition for many community college students.

Obama's aim is to help those left behind by an economic revival taking hold six years into his tenure, which began with the Democrat facing a crippling financial crisis.

"Now that we have fought our way through the crisis, how do we make sure that everybody in this country, how do we make sure that they are sharing in this growing economy?'' Obama said in a White House-produced YouTube video preview of his speech.

The proposals have already been soundly rejected by Republican lawmakers, who gained control of both the House and Senate after enjoying sweeping victories in last November's midterm elections.

"More Washington tax hikes and spending is the same, old top-down approach we've come to expect from President Obama that hasn't worked,'' said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican.

Aiding the middle class

But White House officials are betting that Republicans, also under pressure to help the middle class and needing to prove they can govern, will be willing to compromise on some aspects of the plan.

"So are they going to agree on everything? Absolutely not,'' senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer told CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday. "I think we should have a debate in this country between middle class economics and trickledown economics and see if we can come to an agreement on the things we do agree on.''

The president has vowed to veto a number of Republican priorities, including approval of a controversial oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast and changes to his signature health care reform law.

The proposals are also likely to be the subject of a debate among potential candidates to replace Obama in 2016, a campaign that is just now getting started.

Obama will take his proposals on the road Wednesday, traveling to Idaho and Kansas to promote them. And he will be interviewed by three YouTube bloggers.

The president is currently enjoying a boost in popularity, thanks to an improving economy, falling unemployment rate, plummeting gas prices and a series of policy achievements, including his decision to ease deportation rules on millions of undocumented immigrants and diplomatic overtures with Cuba.

A new poll issued jointly by the Washington Post and ABC News show Obama with a 50 percent approval rating, a nine-point increase since December.

* Don't miss VOA's live coverage of the State of the Union address today from 8:30pm - 11:00 pm EST (0130-400 GMT)

Some material for this report came from Reuters and AP.

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