Obama to announce Afghan troop withdrawal, economic measures in State of Union

Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama is set to announce Tuesday he's withdrawing more than half of the American troops remaining in Afghanistan over the next year in a State of the Union address that will otherwise focus primarily on jobs and the economy.

The president's decision to remove 34,000 of the 66,000 troops in Afghanistan means the White House is on target to formally end the 12-year-old conflict by the end of 2014, senior administration officials say.

American officials are still determining how many troops to leave in Afghanistan after the end of the war. Canada withdrew combat troops in 2011, though an undisclosed number of Canadian soldiers are still in the country until 2014, helping to train and mentor the Afghan National Army.

The Pentagon has told the White House it wants a small American military presence to remain as well.

The highly anticipated announcement overshadowed the White House's stated intention to keep the focus on the economy during the president's fourth State of the Union, essentially a followup to the sweeping liberal agenda put forward by Obama during his inaugural address three weeks ago.

Most of Obama's address is said to emphasize economic recovery and job creation. In his remarks to a joint session on Congress, Obama will call for more spending on the country's crumbling infrastructure — a plea that won't go over well with Republicans, who want to see the president lead the charge on debt reduction and spending cuts.

The White House was chagrined in January that media coverage of the inaugural address centred mostly on Obama's remarks on same-sex marriage, immigration reform, the environment and other Democratic ideals than it did on his vision for the economy and the middle class.

Consequently, this State of the Union aims to put into sharp focus the improved health of the U.S. economy just as so-called sequestration — a massive, mandated package of sweeping spending cuts to a host of federal agencies and departments — is set to kick in on March 1.

Some economists are warning sequestration could push the U.S. into another recession.

Foreign policy, nonetheless, will divert some of the spotlight away from the economy. Along with his Afghanistan announcement, the president will also condemn North Korea's latest nuclear test, conducted last week in defiance of the United Nations.

The State of the Union is replete with pomp and circumstance, but most importantly, it's a president's annual opportunity to ask Congress to help him achieve his legislative agenda. In 1980, former president Jimmy Carter made nine policy requests in his state of the union; in 2000, Bill Clinton made a record-breaking 87.

Lawmakers are bitterly divided on an array of fronts, including gun control, fighting climate change, immigration reform and efforts to reduce the country's $16 trillion national debt.

Those in the Canadian energy industry will be watching closely to see whether Obama provides more details about what he's specifically proposing on climate change in the wake of his inaugural address.

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Obama said last month.

Administration officials have said Obama will touch on climate change on Tuesday mostly in an economic context, including emphasizing the jobs created by clean energy research and technological advances.

There has been some speculation, however, that the president might announce plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants — a decidedly "green" proposal that could cause consternation for proponents of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry bitumen from Alberta's carbon-intensive oilsands to the Gulf Coast.

Some environmental groups have said they've been assured by White House officials that they're going to be pleased by what they hear in Obama's address.

Obama is scheduled to go on the road immediately following his State of the Union, travelling to three states to appeal to Americans to back his efforts to improve the lot of the country's middle class and ensure it remains a land of opportunity for all.

After spending much of his first term mired in gridlock with congressional Republicans, Obama has reportedly decided the secret to success in his second term is getting the public behind his agenda.

The White House has invited the parents of shooting victim Hadiya Pendleton — a Chicago teen killed last month by drug dealers a week after her majorette squad performed at the inauguration — to the State of the Union, where they'll sit with first lady Michelle Obama.

Another guest is Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Haitian immigrant who waited in line for three hours to vote in Miami on election day.

The official Republican response to the speech will be delivered by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. His remarks reportedly brand Obama as advocating "big government."

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