How Much Will Obama’s Ambitious Domestic Goals Squeeze DoD Spending?

U.S. President Obama delivers his second Inaugural address on Jan. 21, a speech that made clear he intends to pursue an ambitious domestic agenda. (JOHN T. BENNETT/DEFENSE NEWS)

After a day of ceremony and celebrities, rhetorical flourishes and pageantry, questions loom about President Obama’s second-term agenda. And one of the key questions is just where will defense and national security fit into his goals?

Obama will return to work Tuesday after nearly 24 consecutive hours of Inaugural festivities. And immediately, he will return to the domestic policy and budget battles he and congressional Republicans have been waging since 2011.

Second-term presidents typically have asserted themselves on foreign and national policy issues, natural since the Constitution grants U.S. chief executives far more power in that domain than on domestic issues. But this one made clear he’s got work to do at home.

But Obama made clear his second term will feature the pursuit of several priorities. As Defense News’s Aaron Mehta wrote earlier today:

“Domestically, Obama indicated that he would push to protect entitlements such as Social Security and mentioned a number of liberal touchstones, including gay rights, climate change and voting rights.”

Add to that list energy, meaning the transition away from fossil fuels and toward green energy technology.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it,” Obama said during his address. “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise.”

Washington will play a role in anything Obama proposes on transitioning toward a new energy policy. It won’t be cheap. Neither will the things Aaron summarized above.

That will surely force Obama administration budget officials to search for places within the federal budget to cut, transferring dollars to things like energy and Social Security preservation.

So, too, could another priority Obama highlighted in his second Inaugural address (emphasis added):

“We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”

The president offered only a few hints of his national security vision for the next four years, declaring that freedom does not make “perpetual war” necessary. That is a clean break with many congressional Republicans and military officials, who have said the post-9/11 struggle with al-Qaida means permanent conflict is required.

Obama also signaled Washington will seek more help from its allies while tackling global crises and conflicts:

“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”

Still, as Aaron wrote earlier today, Obama “pledged to maintain America’s power abroad.” Obama signaled he believes in a strong military. But he also made clear he will continue engaging enemies — likely similar to the multilateral talks his administration has conducted with Iran — for some time before even considering military action:

“We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

“Strength of arms” clearly will require robust annual Pentagon budgets. But just how large remains unclear. What Obama’s ambitious domestic-focused address showed is Defense Department officials likely are facing new cuts to their spending desires, with or without the pending sequestration cuts.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett