Keeping Score on Obama’s State of the Union Address
A reality-check of the promises inside the president's speech.
President Barack Obama spent much of his State of the Union address on Tuesday touting improvements in the United States economy and advocating for new domestic initiatives including free community college and tax cuts for the middle class — ideas that are virtually certain to be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate and House.
When it comes to foreign policy, however, Obama will confront a topsy-turvy political landscape where Republicans may be his closest allies on some issues while Democrats openly revolt against him on others.
Take the faltering fight against the Islamic State, which has continued to hold territory in both Iraq and Syria. Obama has pledged that he wouldn’t send combat troops back to Iraq, but he has been steadily increasing the number of American forces on the ground there. Some in the military are pushing him to send in small numbers of Special Operations forces to train and fight alongside the Iraqi military. If Obama chooses to go that route, Republicans may back him while many Democrats would push hard to prevent the president from escalating the American military campaign there.
Large numbers of Republicans would also be likely to strongly support any administration push to give the NSA expanded surveillance powers in the wake of the Paris attacks and the Islamic State’s continued threats to carry out attacks inside the mainland United States, possibly by using some of the hundreds of American passport-holders who have fought for the militants and then returned home.
On Cuba, by contrast, Republicans will likely do all they can to block the administration’s push to further normalize ties with Havana, including the possible reopening of an American embassy there. Leading Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have already promised to fight such moves.
For the most part, though, Obama enters the penultimate year of his presidency much as he began it: with thorny challenges around the world and implacable political enemies here at home. The Islamic State dominates the headlines, but it’s far from the only flashpoint facing the administration. Below is a guide to some of the issues challenging the administration at home and abroad.
On Cuba, Obama defended his decision to loosen restrictions on U.S. trade with Havana and called on Congress to end the economic embargo of the communist island, which has been in place for almost six decades.
“When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new,” he said. “Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”
Obama’s request is likely to face fierce resistance from a number of hardliners in Congress, especially vocal Cuba hawks such as Rubio and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Still, some Republicans have noted the futility of the Cuban embargo, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. “This is a policy … that has not yielded the result we had hoped it would yield, obviously. I think that’s pretty apparent,” Corker said earlier this month.
In his remarks, Obama welcomed the return of Alan Gross, the American freed as a part of the rapprochement with Cuba. Gross and his wife attended the speech as special guests of the White House. When Obama cited him, Gross was seen mouthing “thank you.”
Obama made the dramatic oil production increases of recent years an early priority, and touted the economic benefits of cheaper oil. In recent years, he has shifted from targeting the oil industry — his early budgets always sought the end of tax breaks for oil companies — to cheering U.S. production. He said the U.S. was less dependent on foreign oil than it has been for 30 years, which is exactly what candidate Obama called for on the campaign trail back in 2008.
He also ticked off — and perhaps oversold — the administration’s achievements in boosting clean energy, describing the United States as the number one in oil and gas, and “number one in wind power.” (China has a lot more wind power installed, the usual metric, though U.S. wind farms generate more electricity for the power grid than Chinese wind farms do.)
He sent Congress a notice that the White House will push back against any legislative attempts to scuttle the environmental rules the administration is drafting to clean up the electricity sector, one of his second-term legacy issues.
“No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” he said, drawing some of the lawmakers out of their seats (to clap, not storm the podium). “And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts.” He also redoubled his determination to drive international agreement for a climate agreement later this year, touting — and in fact over-selling — a climate-change deal he reached with China late last year. (China says it intends to cap its greenhouse-gas emissions around 2030; it has not “committed” to do so.)
Obama renewed his threat to veto legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran as the United States tries to negotiate a nuclear deal with Tehran and six world powers in Vienna ahead of a self-imposed June 30 deadline.
“We have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies – including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict,” Obama said. “But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”
Securing a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program remains one of the most significant legacy-building achievements within the president’s reach. However, most Republicans and a not-insignificant number of Democrats abhor the talks and are considering two separate pieces of legislation the Obama administration opposes. Key U.S. allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are also vehemently opposed to the talks.
The most aggressive legislation in the works would automatically impose new sanctions on Iran if a comprehensive deal on Tehran’s nuclear program doesn’t emerge after the self-imposed June 30 deadline. That legislation, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), was scheduled to be voted out of the Senate Banking Committee this week, but the top Democrat on the panel, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, pushed the meeting back to next week.
“I don’t know what the hurry is except for Mitch McConnell’s politics,” he told reporters on Tuesday. Brown said he wanted to give the panel enough time to receive a classified briefing from the administration on the subject.
The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, is also working on separate legislation that would require the Senate to vote on a joint resolution of disapproval if a final nuclear deal were reached — a measure that is viewed as less hostile to the ongoing talks.
In his remarks, Obama promised not to “relent” in his determination to shut down the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice – so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit,” he said. “It’s not who we are.”
In recent months, Obama has accelerated the transfer of detainees from the prison to foreign host countries, bringing the number of prisoners down to 122 from a high of 680.
Although the detainees were all cleared for transfer in an interagency process that included the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department, Republicans oppose the executive action and have introduced new legislation that would prevent the administration from transferring Gitmo detainees. “The administration seems to be more interested in emptying and closing Guantánamo rather than protecting the national security interests of the United States and the lives of Americans,” charged Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) this month.
Notably absent from Obama’s remarks were a request to Congress to remove existing restrictions that prevent the transfer of detainees to the United States for prosecution and detention — a request Obama’s former Gitmo czar says is the only way to close the prison. The president’s omission of this could disappoint human rights activists who don’t want to see the prison again relegated to the backburner.
The Defense Budget
The president also did not address one of the looming issues facing the Pentagon: the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Thanks to the Murray-Ryan budget deal of December 2013, the military was spared those cuts in fiscal years 2014 and 2015. But the spending caps return with a vengeance in fiscal year 2016, which begins Oct. 1, and that has defense officials losing sleep at night. Now they are urging Congress to lift the spending caps once again, arguing that the caps are too deep and too arbitrary.
The White House is expected to unveil a budget in February that ignores the budget caps. The Pentagon’s portion of the proposed budget is expected to be $36 billion higher than the cap. While the Obama administration is clearly against sequestration and supports a bigger defense budget, it is tough politically for a Democratic president to argue for more defense spending in a high-profile speech like the State of the Union address.
When sequestration was hanging over the military’s head in 2013, the president did use his State of the Union address to warn that the spending cuts would harm military readiness, but he also said it would be a bad idea to spare defense by cutting more deeply into things like “education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits.” Instead, he argued, Congress should tackle tax reform, a step that would generate savings that could reduce the deficit rather than cut more deeply into discretionary spending accounts, including the Defense Department’s budget. The White House has signaled that tax reform will be a part of tonight’s speech, so it’s possible the president will frame the problem the same way he did two years ago.
As Obama surveyed the world in his penultimate State of the Union speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and his annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine ranked among the biggest disappointments and foreign-policy failures of the administration.
When he first took office, Obama hoped that he could move beyond an adversarial U.S.-Russia relationship that had developed near the end of George W. Bush’s administration. In July 2009, just months into his first term, Obama called for a “reset” in relations that would be more than just a “fresh start” and would lead to more cooperation between the two countries.
Today, by contrast, U.S.-Russia ties have plunged to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, with Washington and its allies leveling an array of economic and financial sanctions designed to hurt the Russian economy as punishment for its annexation of Crimea and ongoing support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s economy is indeed in tatters, with the ruble plunging to record lows and many ordinary Russians racing to buy TVs and other expensive appliances before their money becomes even more worthless. Obama was quick to claim credit.
“Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength,” Obama said. “Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.”
Left unsaid was that the biggest hit to the Russian economy has come not from American sanctions, but instead from the rapid, sustained, and strikingly large decrease in the price of the natural gas that is the backbone of Putin’s petro-state. If those prices rebound, Putin could end the year on a far more solid economic footing than he began it with.