WASHINGTON -- When the world tunes in for the State of the Union address next week, viewers will be treated to a dramatic improvement in the background scenery. Thanks to American voters, House Speaker John Boehner's well-tanned smile will be behind the president instead of Nancy Pelosi's surgically enhanced grimace. But if President Barack Obama -- who campaigned for office by promising "hope" and "change" -- is paying attention to current events, he must also alter his message.
James Carville's famous words, "It's the economy, stupid," are still true. Therefore, most of what Obama says Tuesday night will focus on ways he can be credited with "creating and preserving" American jobs and stemming the tidal wave of home foreclosures. Predictably, he will find ways to blame his predecessor for our current economic travail. His remarks will include carefully crafted applause lines on new calls for "civility" in political discourse in the aftermath of the atrocity in Tucson, Ariz., along with pledges to cut deficit spending and debt in the years ahead. We also should expect promises to "work with Republicans" on "improving, not ending," his health insurance law and platitudes about "protecting American security" while eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse" by "reforming" our nation's defense budget.
Much of the national security rhetoric will be designed to mask major reductions in defense spending -- one discretionary federal expenditure on which Obama and most of his fellow Democrats are united. He will justify drastic military cuts by assuring everyone that in the months ahead, he will withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq and begin, "as promised," the drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan. And of course, he will commend the now departed lame-duck 111th Congress for repealing Section 654 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code -- the misnamed "don't ask, don't tell" law -- which barred transgender and active homosexual and bisexual people from our armed forces.
All of this is calculated to remind us -- and those watching around the world -- that what Obama really wants, Obama gets. It's not an empty claim, for much of his initial political agenda has been enacted into law already. But the president also knows the new Republican-tea party coalition in Congress is committed to rolling back his vision of a bigger, costlier, more intrusive federal establishment. He's well aware that Boehner and his colleagues are likely to compel compromises on government-run health care for all, insist on improving border security, require a realistic national energy policy and even force modest reversals of forecasted defense cuts. In short, Obama's "legacy" is at risk.
The president could start to repair that problem Tuesday evening by speaking out for real hope and change in parts of the world where there is little of either. A strong, honest stand for human rights, democratic institutions and rule of law in China, Russia, North Korea, Venezuela, Nicaragua and particularly the Middle East would encourage people yearning for liberty and help defuse despots and jihadists who threaten us with everything from terrorism to nuclear weapons. Such a stance also would unite him in common purpose with most of his domestic political adversaries without alienating his left-wing allies.
Last year, Obama devoted just one phrase of his 15-page State of the Union address to the issue, with this bogus claim: "We support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran." He did no such thing -- all but ignoring weeks of mass demonstrations protesting a stolen presidential election, until the world saw Neda Agha-Soltan murdered by regime goons allied with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri came to Washington begging for U.S. support to avert a takeover in Beirut by the Hezbollah thugs who killed his father. That same day, Hariri's government collapsed, and he went home with nothing more than Obama's rhetorical "commitment to strengthening Lebanon's sovereignty and independence."
Last Tuesday, while Coptic Christians were mourning 23 of their number killed in the firebombing of their church in Alexandria, Obama called Egyptian President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak to assure him that this "sad event" and the ongoing Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia would not jeopardize their "mutual quest for Middle East peace." The next day, Arab leaders denounced "foreign interference in Arab affairs, especially over the region's Christian minorities."
On Wednesday, while standing beside Communist China's leader in the East Room of the White House, Obama excused Beijing's repression and denial of basic freedoms by saying, "China has a different political system than we do. China is at a different stage of development than we are. We come from very different ... histories." He then claimed, "I have been very candid with President Hu about these issues."
Making human rights the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy would require a serious midcourse correction for this administration -- and more than words alone to be credible. Obama would have to stop bowing to despots and apologizing for America. But even that should be possible for the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Hope and change, indeed.