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Recycled

If Obama's energy and trade policies sound familiar, they should.

President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday lasted for more than an hour and touched on issues ranging from immigration to pre-K childhood education. But when it came to energy and trade, two of the most important issues facing the country, Obama had very little to say.

Obama's energy and climate proposals, for instance, were largely recycled from previous years and contained virtually nothing that was entirely new.

When he addressed the joint session of Congress last year, Obama promised to start tackling climate change by using executive actions to overhaul the power sector and set strict limits on the amount of carbon emissions from electric plants. This year's speech, by contrast, offered very few original ideas for how to shift the country toward the cleaner, greener economy he talked about while running for president in 2008.

Obama instead ran through a long list of the steps federal and state governments, as well as the private sector, have taken over the last five years to cut energy prices and greenhouse gas emissions.

Principally, as the president acknowledged, those gains have come from the nation's ongoing natural gas bonanza, which has made the United States the world's biggest gas producer and led to cleaner-burning electricity and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Obama said he would try to cut red tape to make it even easier for businesses to invest in manufacturing facilities that use gas for feedstock.

Still, Obama left an array of key details unaddressed. He spoke of the need to make sure that gas production is environmentally responsible, but didn't say what his administration would ultimately do when came to setting standards for natural-gas wells, including potential new limits on methane emissions and stricter rules regulating the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

He called, vaguely, for Congress to renew the tax credits for clean energy sources like solar power that had been in place for years but fallen victim to partisan sniping on Capitol Hill. And he repeated familiar calls to end longstanding tax breaks for oil companies, now worth about $4 billion a year.

Unlike in 2011, though, there were no ambitious calls to generate the majority of U.S. electricity from clean sources of power or put a million electric vehicles on the roads. He reiterated last year's call to use federal revenues from oil production to fund development of advanced vehicle technologies, but the idea hasn't gotten any traction in the past and is unlikely to get some now. Obama's call for new tax credits for biofuels that could one day replace oil will also probably not go anywhere since the biofuels market is already struggling with falling demand for transport fuels and a glut of U.S. oil production.

The president was just as squishy on climate change. He said there was new urgency to combat the issue, but only rehashed measures designed to curb emissions from power plants by setting stricter carbon emissions limits. That push was a centerpiece of last year's State of the Union address and codified in an executive order last fall, so it -- like so much else in the speech -- wasn't a new proposal.

Obama, clearly taking a cautious path politically, also skipped past the fate of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. While Obama pledged to cut red tape holding up big infrastructure projects, he didn't mention that the project has already been under review for five years.

Obama's trade proposals were also largely a mash-up of the already-done and the never-will-be. The president renewed his call for new trade agreements that he said would create large numbers of jobs, but the few lines he devoted to the subject were a far cry from his 2010 goal of doubling exports over five years. U.S. exports aren't on track to meet that target. Exports have only increased by about a third since that speech and they actually fell from 2012 to 2013. Securing a trade deal that includes fast growing smaller economies could move the U.S. closer to that goal.

With that in mind, Obama called on Congress to agree to give any trade deal an up or down vote by passing "trade promotion authority," which is how past trade deals have avoided getting bogged down with revisions in Congress. Without the green light from Congress, other countries may hesitate to make concessions on the thorny issues that still need to be negotiated.

A bill creating that trade promotion authority was introduced in the Senate earlier this month, but it will face an uphill battle in the House. Michigan Democrat Rep. Sandy Levin, who sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, is among an array of powerful lawmakers and automobile executives who have pushed for currency controls to be included in the deal. They argue that the agreement should include some mechanism for going after countries that depress their currencies in order to make exports cheaper in the global marketplace. Many of those provisions are aimed at China, which isn't currently part of the deal, but could join later. 

Trade negotiators have been working on two agreements, one with Europe and one with Asian and Latin American countries. Negotiating over the second one, the Pacific trade deal -- with Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam -- is further along and the administration was pushing to finish it by the end of 2013. That deadline was missed and a new one hasn't been established, but if it doesn't happen in the first half of 2014, it could be snagged by mid-term elections, as lawmakers worry that supporting a trade deal will open them up to criticism back home. The upshot is that Obama may get the trade powers he wants just when it would be too difficult for him to actually use them.

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Keeping His Powder Dry

From Syria to Iran, Obama's State of the Union leaves many questions unanswered.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is regaining lost territory and solidifying his control of a country that once seemed to be slipping from his grasp. Iraq is spiraling back into civil war, with an al Qaeda affiliate there flexing its muscles on turf American soldiers and Marines once held. Egypt's military government is arresting thousands of political opponents, raising serious questions about its commitment to democracy. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden continues to release new details about America's spying efforts, rattling trust in the U.S. government at home and abroad.

President Barack Obama did not touch on any of that in his State of the Union address, however. Instead, he focused heavily on domestic policy, pledging to take a variety of actions to strengthen the middle class, grow jobs, and make life easier for American families. Obama's annual addresses have always been heavily tilted toward his proposals for changing the situation here at home. Still, his State of the Union address this year was notable for how little time he devoted to foreign policy -- and how little he said that amounted to anything new.

Take Afghanistan, the signature "good war" Obama pledged to fight and win during his initial campaign for the White House. Five years into his presidency and nearly 13 years into the war, the president offered few details about what the United States would do to prevent Afghanistan from falling into chaos if Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a security agreement allowing small numbers of U.S. troops to remain in the country. Obama has repeatedly promised to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan unless a deal was signed. That would be a popular move at home, where support for the Afghan war has fallen to historic lows, but it would be enormously risky for the United States: Obama pulled all American troops out of Iraq in early 2011 after a similar security deal fell apart there, only to watch Iraq slide back into chaos.

"If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda," Obama said, without acknowledging other possible outcomes.

On Syria, the president said the United States would "support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks," but he declined to say whether his administration was willing to provide weapons and arms to the moderate elements of the loose-knit rebel alliance battling Assad. Obama's mention of "terrorist networks" within the Syrian opposition, meanwhile, will likely be seen throughout the Middle East as a sign that Washington was now effectively agreeing, in part, with Assad's contention that he is battling vicious Islamists, not pro-democracy rebels.

Similarly, Obama said that "American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force" had persuaded Assad to give up his chemical weapons after using them against his own people late last year, but he declined to say what Washington would do if Assad failed to follow through on a promise to turn over his chemical weapons for destruction aboard a U.S. vessel at sea.

Obama had few words about Iraq, where violence has soared to pre-surge levels and al Qaeda-linked affiliates have conquered significant swaths of the country, including the infamous city of Fallujah. Congress just cleared the sale of Apache attack helicopters the Iraqi government has pleaded for, but Obama didn't reference Iraq's descent into chaos or talk about steps the U.S. might be willing to take to help stabilize the country. Instead, he lumped Iraq in with other countries with known terrorist networks inside their borders -- specifically, Somalia, Mali, and Yemen -- and pledged to merely "keep working with partners" to battle them.

Snowden, the whistleblower who has disclosed reams of details about U.S. spying programs at home and abroad, wasn't mentioned in Obama's prime time address. The president pledged on Tuesday to work with Congress to "reform our surveillance programs," but said he would do so not out of concern that the NSA has violated privacy rights but because "the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated." The problem, he implied, wasn't that Americans may have had their phone calls and email traffic improperly monitored by the NSA; it was that Washington needed to do a better job of convincing people both in the United States and abroad that the NSA does not represent Big Brother.

On Iran, the president said the United States remains "clear-eyed about Iran's support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah." But he said the United States must give ongoing talks aimed at ending Iran's nuclear program a chance, and promised to veto current legislation, backed by bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, that would immediately slap new sanctions on Iran if the current talks end without a permanent nuclear deal.

"For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," Obama said. "If Iran's leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon."

Obama said that if Iran strikes a deal in nuclear talks, then "we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war." Beyond broadly threatening sanctions, however, he did not say whether he was prepared to use force to prevent Tehran from obtaining a bomb.

Finally, on the United States' controversial use of drones, Obama pressed that he has "imposed prudent limits" on their use. But he did not mention that an effort to take control of the robotic aircraft away from the CIA and give it to the Pentagon in the name of transparency has been stalled since November and the move's prospects are, at best, uncertain.

Obama often describes himself as a wartime president, and his speech Tuesday night was designed to show that he remained willing to use force against America's enemies if there were no other alternatives. The only problem is that he didn't want to say what those alternatives were.

Elias Groll contributed to this report.

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