The List

What Obama Will Say in the State of the Union

The details that have leaked about the issues the president will address -- from Afghanistan to nuclear weapons.

The State of the Union address is the president's annual opportunity to outline his legislative agenda for the year and to ask Congress to help him achieve those policy goals -- an opportunity some leaders have seized on more than others. In 1980, for example, President Jimmy Carter made nine policy requests, while in 2000 Bill Clinton made a record 87.

Presumably, on Tuesday night, Obama will be somewhere in between; he will also, according to senior administration officials, focus on jobs and the economy, which is, after all, what the public wants (in his past four State of the Unions, Obama has spent an average of roughly 23 minutes on the economy and seven minutes on international affairs). But he will likely sprinkle some important foreign-policy issues in as well -- ones that could come to define his second term in office. Here's a primer on what Obama's advisors have told the press about the topics their boss will raise.


According to administration officials, Obama will mention climate change mostly in an economic context -- specifically as it relates to the jobs provided by clean energy research and technological development. While the administration itself has not been more specific, "people who have talked to the administration" have gone a step further, claiming that Obama will likely announce a plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

Granted, people close to people close to Obama are not your typical "reliable source," but at least we know (from the president himself) that climate change will come up on Tuesday. In a speech to House Democrats at their retreat last week, Obama declared that his address will reflect his desire for "an energy agenda that can make us less dependent on foreign oil" and for "the kind of clean energy strategy that will maintain our leadership well into the future." White House aides, meanwhile, have told environmental groups, "You're going to like what you hear."


The president will also revisit one of his "signature national security objectives" -- reducing nuclear arsenals around the world. Though the domestically controversial and globally delicate nature of the effort will preclude Obama from going into specifics on Tuesday night, administration sources have said that the White House is considering a measure that would cut the U.S. arsenal of deployed nuclear weapons from 1,700 to 1,000. (New START already calls for some of those reductions.)

Vice President Joe Biden has also hinted at the nuclear agenda thread in Obama's coming address. In a speech in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 2, Biden announced that the president's State of the Union would reflect Obama's commitment to "advancing a comprehensive nuclear agenda to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, reduce global stockpiles, and secure nuclear materials." Keep an eye out for any last-minute additions to the speech in response to North Korea's provocative nuclear test on Tuesday.


Immigration is another issue that Obama is likely to bring up in the context of jobs and the economy, where he could highlight the benefits of a legal labor force and the ways in which high-skilled immigrant labor could reinvigorate a sluggish U.S. economy. Obama told labor leaders and immigrant advocates that his address will call for a rewrite of immigration laws, and he informed House Democrats that such a rewrite is a "top and early priority" for his second term. It's unclear how specific Obama will get in his speech on Tuesday night, but we know what he wants from a comprehensive immigration reform bill: a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, enhanced border security, punishment for businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers, and a streamlined legal immigration system.


Besides the three topics above, administration officials have been rather quiet about the foreign-policy issues that will come up in Tuesday's speech -- a dearth of information that the vice president nicely filled in during his Feb. 2 speech in Munich. The State of the Union, Biden said, will reflect the president's interest in "strengthening our alliances, which are … essential to our ability to meet our challenges in the 21st century," and in "continuing to take down barriers to trade, including with Europe, to spur growth on both sides of the Atlantic." Obama's commitment to democracy will not falter in his second term, according to Biden, who asserted that the State of the Union would address the importance of "engaging the democracies in Southeast Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and across the Middle East." Looks like the pivot to Asia is still on track.


With American troops still fighting overseas, Obama will discuss the drawdown of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The president has some decisions to make on that score -- in particular the next step in troop reductions and the size of the U.S. force that will remain after the war formally ends. On Tuesday, CNN's Jake Tapper reported that, according to "sources with knowledge" of the president's address, Obama will announce Tuesday night that by this time next year, 34,000 troops in Afghanistan will return home, reducing the U.S. military presence in the country by half.

If history is any guide, however, don't expect the president to spend much time discussing America's longest war. As Foreign Policy's Ty McCormick noted on Monday in a review of State of the Unions since 2011, "Ignoring Afghanistan has become something of a presidential tradition."

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

The List

The World’s Best Post Offices

The much-maligned U.S. Postal Service stacks up surprisingly well in international rankings.

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night may stay the American mail carrier, but pretty soon, the weekend will. On Feb. 6, the United States Postal Service made the long-anticipated move of ending Saturday mail delivery. With demand for snail mail and paper billing falling and the payments of employee benefits piling up, the venerable USPS is anxiously looking for ways to cut costs, having twice defaulted on its required payments to the federal government.

But how do America's mail carriers stack up internationally? In late 2011, Oxford Strategic Consulting, a British firm, released a report ranking the postal services of the G-20 countries based on three metrics: "provision of access to vital services," "operational resource efficiency," and "performance and public trust." Guess who came in first? That's right: the good old U.S. of A.

1.     The United States Postal Service

Efficiency may not be the first word that comes to mind when Americans think of the USPS, but U.S. mail carriers are better at using their limited resources than any of their counterparts, according to OSC's study. In one year, America's mailmen and women delivered 268,894 letters and 2,633 parcels per carrier -- more than any other country -- to 151 million addresses. All told, the USPS accounts for 40 percent of the world's mail volume (yes, that figure counts your Victoria's Secret catalogues). And despite complaints about customer service, when researchers in a different study tested 159 countries' post offices on how fast an average letter sent to a fake address would be returned, the United States also came in first.

The Oxford authors acknowledge that the situation is in flux due to the rapidly declining demand for the post office's services. The United States already lags behind other countries in 12th place on "provision of access" -- which measures the number of citizens per post office -- and would likely worsen if the USPS follows through on its retrenchment plans.

The biggest obstacle to a more efficient post office may be the U.S. Congress, which has failed to approve reform efforts such as setting up retail outlets in post offices, raising prices, shuttering less-used offices, and ending six-day delivery. (As part of its new cost-saving measures, the USPS has managed to circumvent Congress by keeping only parcel service on Saturdays so that, technically, there's still some service six days a week.)

And in case you American declinists were wondering, China ranks last on the survey.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

2.     Japan Post

Japan's post office scores highest on public trust as measured by surveys conducted by the World Economic Forum and second on efficiency. And unlike most countries, it has actually increased the number of post offices in recent years. It's also much more than a post office. Japan Post also provides banking and insurance services and is the world's largest financial institution, with assets of $3.3 trillion -- more than the GDP of France.

Despite its popularity with customers, the fate of Japan Post has been one of the most contentious issues in Japanese politics over the last decade. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pushed through a bill ordering the privatization of Japan Post in 2005 as the centerpiece of a broad economic reform agenda, despite fierce opposition that nearly brought down his government. The plan was scaled back after the opposition Democratic Party took over in 2009, but the hope is still to eventually spin the financial services division off into a private bank that can subsidize the cost of mail delivery.

Japan Post took a major blow in the 2011 tsunami, with as many as 330 post offices destroyed or suffering major damages.


3.     Korea Post

Ranking in the top five in all three of the study's metrics, Korea Post stands out for the transparency of its customer service: It lists all customer complaints individually on its website for the public to see. Employees receive bonuses tied to customer service, and consumer surveys rank it as one of the country's most popular institutions.

In recent years, Korea Post has been following Japan into the financial services market, providing savings accounts, insurance products, and credit cards aimed at low-income customers. In some remote areas, post offices even provide services like train and airline bookings as well.


4.     Australia Post

With large and sparsely populated rural areas to cover in the country's vast interior, Australia's national postal service faces economic dilemmas similar to those the USPS faces in covering the Mountain West and Great Plains, and its scores on all three measures have fallen in recent years.

But Australia Post has been a pioneer in finding innovative ways to raise revenue and maintain services in remote regions. These include allowing privately owned post offices in small towns that operate like franchises, with owners purchasing a license to provide official postal services.

These retail outlets also sell other items, including souvenirs, books, office supplies, and coffee and tea -- making them more like general stores that provide postal services than traditional post offices. Australia Post has also partnered with banks to provide financial services at rural locations.

Thanks to these initiatives, Australia Post raked in a profit of more than U.S. $290 million in 2011/2012.


5.     Canada Post

With only 1,516 citizens per post office -- compared with 8,409 and more than 24,000 in China -- Canada ranks highest in the world for access to postal services. But like its neighbor to the south, Canada has been hit by rising costs and decreased demands for its services. 

The government launched a $2 billion modernization plan in 2010, which will include updating equipment and buying more vehicles. Unions have objected to new rules requiring letter carriers to carry two bundles instead of one, and have also expressed concerns that the investment in new technology is a prelude to large-scale layoffs. (Canada Post denies this, but does plan to reduce its workforce through attrition.)

Canada Post has also set up a free online billing service called ePost, which allows customers to pay bills online and manage financial documents through the postal service's website. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has suggested that the USPS set up a similar service, but Congress has yet to take up the idea.

Denis S. Hurd/Flickr

6.     Deutsche Post (Germany)

If the Tea Party had its way, the future of the USPS might look a lot like Germany, which has the only fully privatized post office in the G-20. Though it is still required by law to deliver nationwide six days a week, Deutsche Post has jettisoned almost all of its infrastructure since it was privatized in 1995, eliminating 100,000 positions and all but 24 of its physical buildings. German post offices are now, for the most part, within other business like banks, grocery stores, and -- in some rural areas -- private homes.

Though it lags behind public competitors in efficiency -- its carriers deliver less than a fifth of the letters than their counterparts in the USPS -- Deutsche Post has been innovative in other areas such as E-Postbrief, which allows customers to sent e-mails that are delivered as physical mail. In 2002, Deutsche Post purchased international logistics company DHL, making it the world's largest courier service -- meaning that many Americans have actually already used the German post office without even realizing it.

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