Opinion: Echoes of presidents past

BOSTON — What President Obama was up against and needed to combat in his State of the Union speech was what he called a “deficit of trust and a corrosive doubt” of government and a “lost faith” in our institutions. “No wonder there is so much disappointment out there,” he said.

This, of course, is what depressions and recessions of this magnitude bring about. It was what Franklin Roosevelt was talking about in his first inaugural when he famously said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to turn retreat into advance.”

Roosevelt, in his first State of the Union speech, tried to assure Americans about the economy, saying that “we are definitely in the process of recovery.” But we still had most of the decade left of hard times before World War II brought us out of the depression.

Obama, too, told us that “the worst of the storm has past,” but no one can know whether the measures he spoke of will bring about recovery soon, or much later than everyone hopes.

Given the state of the economy, it was no wonder that foreign affairs came in a distant second place in his speech. He came around to national security and our two wars at about 52 minutes into a 70-minute speech, and spent only about 10 minutes on them.

It was more than Roosevelt had spent on foreign affairs in his first State of the Union, which was only about about three paragraphs, and saying “I cannot, unfortunately, present to you a picture of complete optimism regarding world affairs.”

Roosevelt spoke darkly of “ immediate or future aggression and with it the spending of vast sums on armament and the continued building up of defensive trade barriers prevent any great progress in peace or trade agreements.” Hitler was already in power, but the worst was yet to come.

Obama spoke of gains against Al Qaeda, of troop increases in Afghanistan, and repeated his pledge that “our troops can begin to come home” in July of 2011. It was a pledge that the White House tried to downplay after he first mentioned that deadline in his West Point speech, and it came as a surprise to me that he would want to underline it again in his State of the Union.

As for Iraq, Obama said: “Make no mistake. This war is ending, and all our troops are coming home.” He said all U.S. combat troops would be out of Iraq by August, another pledge I was surprised he wanted to stress, given the volatile security situation in Iraq that might yet require that deadline to slip.

His biggest cheers, at least in the foreign policy segment of his speech, came when he said that all our men and women in uniform demanded our respect now and support when they came home.

The threat of nuclear weapons, and his efforts to reduce them, came front and center, and his plans for a conference of nations in the spring to achieve it will occupy a great deal of time for his foreign policy team.

There was little new in his talk of isolating North Korea, but he did say with conviction that Iran would “face growing consequences” if it follows its current nuclear policies in defiance of the United Nations and the Western World.

FDR, in his first State of the Union, spoke of the “friendly contacts” which were “fortunately building a strong and permanent tie between the legislative and executive branches of the Government,” and he compared Congress’ tasks to that of “ the first congress of 1798. ”

George Washington had similar nice things to say about his Congress in his State of the Union address in 1780. “ I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient and equal government.”

Obama, although he did say the people deserved good government, seemed more to scold his congress than to praise it, sounding rather like a school master in an unruly classroom.

But Obama had more to say about foreign affairs than did either Roosevelt or Washington in their State of the Union addresses. Washington did speak of “hostile tribes,” and said that it might be necessary to “punish aggression.” But he was speaking of American Indian tribes, while America today fights hostile tribes in Afghanistan.