Report

Obama Pushes Back Against Republican Rhetoric in State of the Union

Obama took on Trump and other GOP presidential candidates but conspicuously sidestepped weaknesses in his own foreign policy legacy.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12:  President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill January 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C.  In his final State of the Union, President Obama reflected on the past seven years in office and spoke on topics including climate change, gun control, immigration and income inequality. (Photo by Evan Vucci - Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill January 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C. In his final State of the Union, President Obama reflected on the past seven years in office and spoke on topics including climate change, gun control, immigration and income inequality. (Photo by Evan Vucci - Pool/Getty Images)

While the raucous and often bizarre Republican race for the White House has played out in recent months, President Barack Obama has largely stayed above the fray in the Oval Office. But in his final State of the Union address, Obama waded into the campaign Tuesday, firing back at heated rhetoric from Donald Trump and other candidates who have labeled him a weak leader unable to take on Islamist extremists or other threats to America.

Defending his foreign policy without calling out his critics by name, Obama argued he chose a wise course of limited military action against the Islamic State, instead of a debilitating “quagmire” that would require a massive ground force. Although the Islamic State poses a “direct threat” to the United States, Obama said the group does not “threaten our national existence” and the danger needed to be kept in perspective.  

And in the most emotionally charged moment of the speech, Obama warned against scapegoating Muslim immigrants, issuing an impassioned appeal for tolerance and civility.

In a clear rebuke to Trump and some other candidates who have called for denying American asylum for Muslim refugees to prevent potential terrorist attacks, the president said “we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”

On the campaign trail, Trump has won cheers when expressing disgust with “political correctness,” but Obama said: “This isn’t a matter of political correctness. This is a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith.”

Trump responded, dismissively, about 90 minutes after the speech ended.

The State of the Union speech was one of the most boring, rambling, and non-substantive I have heard in a long time,” the GOP front-runner tweeted.

But while he sought to counter his Republican critics, Obama either glossed over or outright omitted some uncomfortable subjects that have plagued his national security team in his second term.

Perhaps the most glaring omission was the president’s failure to mention the war in Afghanistan — the longest in the country’s history and where 9,800 U.S. troops remain on the ground. Obama last year reneged on his pledge to bring all American forces home from Afghanistan, due to the resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda. And yet he gave no indication in his speech of his assessment of the war effort in Afghanistan, or whether the U.S. military mission should continue.

As expected, Obama cited the nuclear agreement with Iran and the restoration of ties with Cuba as successes that illustrated the value of persistent, multilateral diplomacy. But he made only a cursory mention of the brutal war in Syria and the latest bid to try to launch peace negotiations, without addressing criticism from allies and opposition activists that Washington needs to directly confront the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

He argued the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State was steadily weakening militants in Iraq and Syria, and rejected calls from some Republicans for a broader military strategy involving more boots on the ground.

“We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis,” Obama said. “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”

But in citing the previous mission in Iraq, Obama failed to acknowledge that he chose to send back more than 3,000 troops to the country over the last 18 months to help fight the Islamic State in another open-ended war.

In rebuking the Republicans, Obama portrayed his leadership as measured and sober, suggesting his critics were engaging in irresponsible bluster. Without mentioning GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, Obama hit back at the Texas lawmaker’s vow to “carpet bomb” enemies in the Middle East.

The world expects the United States to show leadership, Obama said, “and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians.”

The president added: “That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”

Cruz called Obama’s speech “more of the same,” in a series of scathing tweets. “The American people are tired of having a president who will not even acknowledge the evil we’re facing much less do anything to stop it,” he wrote.

In contrast to traditional State of the Union speeches, Obama did not propose a laundry list of initiatives to be passed by Congress, or attempt to outline his foreign policy priorities region by region. As such, Obama’s address did not delve into Washington’s disapproval of Russia’s moves in Syria or Ukraine, or reiterate U.S. displeasure with China’s expansionist claims in the South China Sea.

Instead, Obama posed questions that he said political leaders — and Americans — would need to answer, including: “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?”

Obama also reiterated many of his familiar tropes on climate change, mocking Republican skepticism about the science while boasting of U.S. progress in cleaning up its energy system and curbing emissions of greenhouse gases. Hailing the international accord reached in December in Paris as the world’s most ambitious climate agreement, the president again ticked off the economic benefits to be derived from a transition away from dirty fossil fuels and toward clean energy.

Yet he also betrayed the bipolar approach to energy and climate that has bedeviled his administration and many others. He applauded lower gasoline prices — “and gas under $2 a gallon ain’t bad, either,” he said — even though many administration policies are designed to rein in energy consumption by raising the price of fossil fuels. At the same time, the driver of that cheap gasoline — a historic plunge in the global price of crude oil — is wreaking havoc across America’s own oil patch.

Although he sidestepped a discussion of his foreign policy disappointments, Obama did offer a candid verdict on his shortcomings as a political leader. The president noted that too many Americans feel “their voice doesn’t matter,” and lamented that the partisan divide had worsened during his tenure.

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said.

“I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

FP‘s Keith Johnson contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Evan Vucci/Pool/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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