In State of the Union, military often takes a back seat

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, February 12, 2013.


By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — Military watchers are hoping the president’s State of the Union speech Tuesday will feature lengthy passages about the war in Afghanistan, the recent reductions in military retirement pay or the veterans claims backlog.

If history is any indication, they’ll be disappointed.

For President Barack Obama, the annual address has primarily focused on the economy and the federal budget, with the wars and veterans policy getting second billing.

Obama has spent less than one-fourth of his five State of the Union speeches discussing national security, military affairs and veterans policy. His predecessor, George W. Bush, spent almost half his remarks on those topics during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending only slightly more time on domestic priorities.

Earlier this month, in response to criticism from congressional leaders that the president has ignored the Afghanistan War in his public remarks, National Security Staff spokeswoman Laura Lucas said Obama will discuss his foreign policy priorities in the State of the Union, but she would not provide specifics.

On Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the speech will cover “a range of issues” including job creation and economic opportunity, but did not mention any military topics.

Veterans groups said they want more than just a mention. At the top of their list is the recent budget deal that included a 1 percent reduction in annual military retirement cost-of-living adjustments for working-age veterans, a move that will cost some career servicemembers tens of thousands of dollars in future income.

But the White House has been mum on the issue, offering only support for the overall budget deal and the fiscal stability it provides to all military programs.

“This would be a great opportunity for their perspective on the issue,” said Alexander Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It’s the perfect platform to draw attention to the problem.”

He noted than in 2010, the president made just a brief mention of repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law in the annual address, but the prominence of the speech instantly elevated the importance of the issue. Congress voted to abolish the law 11 months later.

“Even just a mention in the State of the Union can shift priorities,” he said.

IAVA leaders also hope the president will address advance funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the veterans claims backlog, improvements to the GI Bill and military suicide prevention.

None of those issues have grabbed national headlines recently, and it would be surprising for them to get more than a brief mention in the speech.

One military area that could be a speech focus is military sexual assault prevention, a hotly debated topic for Congress much of last year.

On Wednesday, Obama announced a new task force to end sexual assaults on college campuses, part of a broader effort to combat the crime. A newly released White House report on the issue also discussed military rape and assault, and officials have said they want to use the military as a model for how to combat the problem.

And the president will most likely talk about the war in Afghanistan, though exactly how much remains to be seen. The military is entering the final months of the mission in that country, with an unclear vision of how the Afghan military will fare in their absence.

Military guests at the event have been a norm, for the president and members of Congress. But their appearances — such as Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta’s in 2011 — is typically orchestrated for public recognition and not major policy announcements.

Nicholson said he is optimistic that type of one-off appearance won’t be the most memorable military moment of the event.

“The president always addresses the military and veterans issues in some form in the speech,” he said. “But I think the bar is higher for us than just getting a mention. We want to see him go further and expand on many of these issues.”

Twitter: @LeoShane