The Cable

Obama’s Toughest Audience in the State of the Union: Fellow Democrats

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will appeal directly to the American people to shore up support for his ambitious second-term foreign-policy goals. But the audience the president really needs to win over is his nominal Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, who’ve shown a recurring willingness to buck the ...

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In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will appeal directly to the American people to shore up support for his ambitious second-term foreign-policy goals. But the audience the president really needs to win over is his nominal Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, who’ve shown a recurring willingness to buck the White House on a number of key foreign-policy initiatives. For instance: A sizable chunk of Democrats in Congress oppose the president’s sanctions policy on Iran; many also want a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan; and the party is split on the proper limits of government surveillance. With this in mind, we asked a handful of influential Democrats to outline their desires for the president’s address to the nation on the biggest global issues of the day.

Afghanistan Withdrawal

On Tuesday, Obama is expected to announce a milestone for 2014: The end of America’s military participation in the war in Afghanistan. But unifying Democrats behind any one withdrawal plan is proving difficult thanks to the long war’s widespread unpopularity.

As it stands, Obama needs Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a negotiated bilateral security agreement to establish the future role of the U.S. military, something the mercurial Karzai has refused to do so far. Despite the fact that only 17 percent of Americans support the war, some Democrats believe the United States cannot abandon the country wholesale and cede power to the Taliban. They want the president to call out Karzai directly in his address.

"I hope he puts additional pressure on President Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement and signals that he will soon announce post-2014 U.S. troop levels," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Cable.

Kaine and other moderate Democrats want the Obama administration to leave a small number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. A widely floated plan for residual forces in Afghanistan is 10,000 troops, but some Democrats want out completely — a path the military calls the "zero option."

"There’s no military solution in Afghanistan, and we need to bring our young men and women home," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) told The Cable. She expressed hope that Obama would voice the "sentiments" of Vice President Joe Biden in his Tuesday address and call for a much smaller residual force — if any at all. Biden, a staunch opponent of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan surge, has long wanted the United States to focus on a counterterrorism mission that would require relatively modest numbers of troops. His views were ridiculed in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, but it has been coming closer in line with the administration’s and the military’s thinking.

Overall, top Democrats would like U.S. troops to draw down sooner rather than later. Last year, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she wanted U.S. combat troops to exit Afghanistan before the 2014 target. And in September, the Senate, backed by a majority of Democrats, voted to accelerate the U.S. troop withdrawal.

Iran Nuclear Deal

Without a doubt, the president’s most contentious foreign-policy initiative is his interim nuclear deal with Iran. A majority of lawmakers in the House and Senate don’t trust Tehran and have pledged support for new legislation that would immediately slap hard-hitting sanctions on the Islamic Republic if no deal were reached. The administration believes the bill would torpedo the talks and push Iran away from the negotiating table. To the White House’s surprise and anger, the Senate bill is being pushed by one of the Senate’s most powerful Democrats: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey. Dubbed the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, the bill has 59 supporters in the Senate, including 16 Democrats, though momentum has stalled and some of those who were initially in favor of the bill have in recent days seemed to signal that they are rethinking whether to back it. In the meantime, Democrats who’ve stuck their necks out for the White House to oppose the bill want the president to make a strong case for holding off on the legislation.

"The State of the Union offers the president another opportunity to explain to Congress and the American people what’s at stake and why he believes Congress should withhold for now action on new sanctions," Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) told The Cable. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Johnson played a pivotal role in preventing new sanctions legislation from having a vote in his committee. He stands by that decision and wants the president to make the case for waiting. "This may be the last best chance to resolve the Iran crisis by diplomacy, so the president is absolutely right to fully test Iran’s leaders," he said.

Other Democrats believe that by passing new sanctions legislation now, it would strengthen the White House’s negotiating position without imploding a deal. Those hawkish Democrats have been discouraged by last week’s remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that Tehran "did not agree to dismantle anything" in its interim nuclear deal with six world powers. They’ll be looking for the president to issue a warning to Iran’s leaders. "Those kinds of statements give a lot of folks pause," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), one of the 59 senators who pledged support for the bill co-sponsored by Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). "We’ve got to get this right."

But in pushing back against Democrats such as Menendez and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Obama will need to choose his words carefully. Previous White House efforts to label sanctions efforts a "march to war" resulted in furious rebukes from Democratic leaders. Earlier this month, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer denounced such assertions as "untrue" and "irresponsible." It’s unlikely that Obama will use similarly aggressive language in his State of the Union address.

NSA Reform

The most closely watched issue, though, is likely to be government surveillance reform, an issue that has come to the fore because of revelations from National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden about the NSA’s efforts to collect and store vast amounts of data on the communications of ordinary Americans. Obama proposed modest NSA reforms earlier this month during a speech at the Justice Department, but the issue has sparked bitter divisions within the Democratic Party.

The highest-ranking Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, largely support the president and the intelligence community. Like the president, they’ve defended the NSA’s work while calling for modest reforms like placing additional reporting and transparency requirements on the NSA. Importantly, the president left Congress to decide on how the changes to metadata collection would be implemented.

Ruppersberger told The Cable that it’s important that the executive, judiciary, and legislative branches of government all work together to implement surveillance reforms.

"I believe that all three branches of government will have a role to play in these reforms," he said. "I agree with many of the president’s recommendations for reform to our national security tools."

However, Ruppersberger and Feinstein are reluctant to take too many tools away from the NSA in the name of privacy. Feinstein, in particular, has repeatedly defended the NSA’s collection of metadata and has introduced legislation that largely codifies the practice.

Other Democrats are calling for more substantial reforms. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), for example, does not support storing U.S. phone records with a third party or the NSA: He believes phone companies should keep the metadata to avoid consolidating too much power within the agency. Other Democrats go even further: They believe the Obama administration, as it’s staffed today, is incapable of implementing real reform and requires a personnel shake-up. On Monday, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) criticized Obama for letting Director of National Intelligence James Clapper play a role in the reform effort after Clapper was shown to have knowingly misled Congress while talking about the NSA bulk collection program. "Asking Director Clapper, and other federal intelligence officials who misrepresented programs to Congress and the courts, to report to you on needed reforms and the future role of government surveillance is not a credible solution," read a letter Grayson signed this week.

In any event, the president can expect strong opposition to his policies from the Republican Party, as he has throughout his entire presidency. Obama has rarely faced so much public criticism from his own Democrats, though. Tuesday will give him one of his last, best chances to rally the troops for battles that he never thought that he’d need them to fight.

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