The FP Guide to Obama’s Last State of the Union Address
Look for Obama to appeal for tolerance toward Syrian refugees and tout his diplomacy with Iran and Cuba as he tries to frame his foreign-policy record.
In his first State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama promised to withdraw the last American troops from Iraq and end the war in Afghanistan.
As he prepares to give the final State of the Union address of his presidency Tuesday, Obama faces the dire reality that he has fallen short on both counts. In Iraq, he has had to send U.S. troops back to the country and ratchet up an air war against the Islamic State. In Afghanistan, he had to cancel plans to bring the remaining 9,800 troops home.
Even his campaign promise to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay has gone unfulfilled; the president is making a last-ditch push to shutter the detention center — possibly through an executive order. But he faces a bitter fight on Capitol Hill, where Republicans have promised to do all they can to block what they decry as an illegal move.
For Obama, the prime-time speech represents his last, best chance to burnish his legacy as he heads into the final months of his presidency. Obama will tout his nuclear deal with Iran, which he and his aides say is a historic agreement that will stabilize the Middle East for decades to come, and the normalization of relations with Cuba. He’ll also make a pitch for a massive trade pact with Asian nations, designed, in part, to prevent China from establishing economic domination over the region.
On the domestic front, the president is expected to point to lower unemployment, expanded health-care coverage, and a booming auto industry as proof that his leadership has paid dividends. He’ll have a tougher argument to make on foreign policy, however, given the rise of the Islamic State, the mounting refugee crisis triggered by the brutal Syrian civil war, the Taliban and al Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan, and the growing prospect of new Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks at home.
From defending his handling of the Middle East to implicitly pushing back against Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim diatribes, here are five things Obama is virtually certain to talk about Tuesday night — and one important legacy that he should address but probably won’t.
1. Syrian refugees
The heated debate between the White House and congressional Republicans over the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States is poised to become the most politically divisive issue of the president’s address.
Last fall, the Obama administration announced it would accept up to 85,000 refugees by the end of his presidency, drawing sharp opposition from Republicans who want to block or limit asylum for those fleeing Middle Eastern wars out of fear the amnesty will be exploited by Islamic State militants or other extremists.
Obama has snubbed those concerns by inviting Refaai Hamo, a native Syrian now living in Detroit, to watch the address from first lady Michelle Obama’s box. Hamo, a cancer-stricken 55-year-old scientist, fled Syria in 2013 after a bomb destroyed his home and killed his wife, daughter, and five relatives.
The White House maintains Iraqi and Syrian refugees undergo the most severe screening process of any migrants allowed into the United States. But Republican presidential candidates, led by front-runner Trump, have made asylum denials a cornerstone of their campaigns. Obama is likely to reiterate his case that giving safe haven to refugees fleeing violence is a core American value — a contention that isn’t likely to go down well in front of a GOP-controlled Congress.
2. War against the Islamic State
Watch for Obama to repeat his view that the military campaign against the Islamic State is making steady progress — even though he has been reluctant to strike at the militant group with full force. The Pentagon estimates that the Islamic State has lost 30 percent of its territory over the past year, but the group remains firmly entrenched in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa and the northern Iraqi city of Mosul while recruiting a stream of new volunteers and plotting attacks on the West.
About 3,500 U.S. troops are currently in Iraq, and the Obama administration last fall said it would send 50 special operations forces to Syria — a major reversal for a president who promised to end wars, not begin them. Meanwhile, the Islamic State is branching out in Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, and militants as far away as Central Africa and Indonesia are pledging allegiance to the caliphate.
3. Iran nuclear agreement
The nuclear accord between Iran and world powers clinched in July represents what Obama sees as his signature diplomatic achievement. Look for him to defend the deal as a successful approach that blocks Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon — and prevents a potential war. It’s a major piece of the longtime White House promise of pursuing diplomacy with foes before mobilizing the military.
The deal, built on talks during George W. Bush’s administration, imposes limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for easing crippling economic sanctions. Tehran has so far complied with the agreement but will have to take some crucial steps in the next few months, including dismantling the core of its heavy-water reactor in Arak and decommissioning centrifuges used for uranium enrichment.
Late last year, after Tehran violated a U.N. Security Council resolution by launching two ballistic missile tests, U.S. lawmakers from both parties accused the Obama administration of dithering over new sanctions against Iran.
Obama needs to “explain how he intends to strictly enforce this deal and push back on Iran in the Middle East,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told reporters Monday. “I think it’s an important moment for the president to reassure our regional allies that we stand with them and that we intend to continue to contain Iran’s bad behavior and to insist on strict enforcement of this nuclear deal.” Israel and Gulf Arab allies strongly oppose the accord, which they see as Iran’s pathway to greater regional power.
4. Closing Guantánamo
Obama is expected to renew his call to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and possibly lay the ground for taking executive action to shut the facility if Congress continues to refuse. The president has made clear that closing the U.S.-run jail remains at the top of his to-do list, a goal that has eluded him after issuing orders to close it upon entering office in 2009.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told Fox News Sunday that Obama feels “an obligation to the next president” and “will fix this so that they don’t have to be confronted with the same set of challenges.”
However, Republicans and many Democrats oppose plans to move detainees to maximum security prisons on the U.S. mainland, as the White House has proposed. Obama so far has expedited the transfer of detainees to other countries, whittling down the number held at the center to 104, down from nearly 800 during the Bush administration.
Even if Obama chooses to take unilateral action and close the detention center, human rights groups say that would not resolve the legal limbo created by Guantánamo. In that case, remaining detainees would be moved to a military jail on the mainland, where they would remain behind bars indefinitely without charges.
5. Pacific Rim trade deal
Look for Obama to pitch the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which would put meat on the bones of his strategic “rebalance” to Asia and boost industries keen to gain access to markets across the Pacific. Negotiators from 12 countries hammered out TPP last year, but the White House will have to push hard to get Congress to endorse the deal.
The agreement enjoys mostly solid support from the Republican majority, but Obama will have to win over skeptical Democrats who say the accord will hit American workers hard and encourage companies to do business abroad where labor and environmental protections are weaker.
With China’s growing economic and military might, Obama has tried to make the Asia-Pacific region a higher priority. China’s assertive stance in the South China Sea is being closely watched across Washington, and the Obama administration has expanded the U.S. military’s presence in the region in a warning signal to Beijing and a sign of reassurance to America’s allies. The White House calls the trade deal a boon to the U.S. economy that would tangibly boost Obama’s hope of strengthening America’s role and influence in the Asia-Pacific.
Bonus! Here’s what you won’t hear Obama discuss:
After eight years of Bush administration foreign policies that angered and alienated U.S. allies, Obama came to office in 2009 pledging to “strengthen old alliances, forge new ones, and use all elements of our national power.” Yet the thawing diplomacy with Iran and Cuba aside, the United States now faces an ever-widening gap in relations with many of its traditional partners worldwide.
Among them: Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet ignore few opportunities to blast Obama, mostly over the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran; infuriated leaders in Germany and Brazil whose phones were tapped by the NSA; and Egypt, where the United States backed away from its longtime ally, then-President Hosni Mubarak, during the 2011 Arab Spring revolution that spurred unrest across the Middle East.
The U.S. turnabout in Egypt was particularly devastating for other Arab allies that feared they could not rely on America’s support for regional and domestic crises — a belief only underscored by Obama’s refusal to enforce the “red line” he drew in Syria as a warning to President Bashar al-Assad against using chemical weapons in that nation’s civil war. As a result, Mideast partners including Saudi Arabia and Iraq have eschewed Washington’s guidance on how to fight wars within and on their borders.
Meanwhile, relations with Russia have only gotten worse. Russia was all but a sleeping bear on the global stage when Obama took office as Moscow grappled with a tanking economy. Since then, Russia has steadily flexed its military muscle — most notably in Ukraine and Syria — as it tries to reclaim its superpower status.
Photo credit: Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce
John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson