State of the Union Steers Clear of al-Qaeda, Yemen; Lukewarm Reaction to Iran Veto Threat
WASHINGTON -- President Obama was relaxed and defiant as he delivered his first State of the Union address of the 114th Congress tonight -- and lawmakers from both parties were relaxed in their seats instead of giving a standing ovation at his threat to veto an Iran sanctions bill.
The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), was supposed to get a hearing in the Senate Banking Committee today and marked up on Thursday. That process was postponed until next week.
Co-sponsor Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) declared in a statement after Obama's veto vow, "In the next few weeks, I believe we will pass the bipartisan Kirk-Menendez bill to give our children an insurance policy against a nuclear war in the Middle East.”
"Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we've halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material," Obama said. "Between now and this spring, 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."
"There're no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran," the president continued. "But new sanctions passed by this Congress at this moment in time will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails, alienating America from its allies, making it harder to maintain sanctions and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn't make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress."
"The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom."
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) tweeted from the floor, "The few Dems who applauded when Obama said he'd veto Iran Sanctions bill shows we wld be able to override the veto."
Menendez just stared at Obama as the veto threat was issued, like he withheld his applause and remained seated as the president touted new relations with Cuba.
But many of the key foreign policy challenges facing the world, namely the power of the global terrorist network, were left out of the address.
There was no claim that al-Qaeda was "decimated" or "on the run," terms favored by the administration. There was no mention of al-Qaeda at all.
There was no mention of Boko Haram or Nigeria, after the terror group has plowed through territory, massacred thousands and declared a caliphate.
There was no mention of Yemen, which was falling to Iran-backed Shiite rebels as Obama spoke yet was mentioned in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 State of the Union addresses as a success. "From Pakistan to Yemen, the al-Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America," Obama said in the 2012 speech.
His speech focused largely on economic priorities, from free community college to mandatory paid sick leave proposals. While promoting criminal justice reform -- "surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed" -- he stressed America should practice "a better politics."
"That's how we start rebuilding trust. That's how we move this country forward. That's what the American people want. That's what they deserve. I have no more campaigns to run," he said, adding with a grin, "I know, because I won both of them."
"My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I've had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol: to do what I believe is best for America."
He threw a sideways reference at Keystone XL when he said "let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline," and later spoke of "why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims, the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace."
He vowed to keep liquidating Guantanamo because it "makes no sense to spend $3 million per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit."
"Since I've been president, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of Gitmo in half. Now it is time to finish the job, and I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It is not who we are," Obama said. "It's time to close Gitmo."
He called on Congress "to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL," seven months after the declaration of the caliphate by the Islamic State.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said he welcomed Obama's "recognition tonight of the urgent need for legislation to counter the growing menace of cyberattacks," but "the world still faces acute threats from Islamist terrorists."
"The recent Paris terrorist attack and the massacre in Nigeria show that the international jihadist movement is not on the run – it is spreading at an alarming pace, and its members are fully committed to attacking the West whenever they can," Nunes said. "Just today, the government of Yemen – which the president has upheld as a model of a successful counter-terrorism strategy – was nearly overthrown, while ISIS released a video threatening to behead more hostages. The time for half-measures is over; instead of releasing dangerous terrorists from Guantanamo Bay, the United States needs to hunt down, capture, and interrogate members of these terror networks wherever they are.”
The ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), said Obama has been "consistent and steadfast in leveraging the full arsenal of U.S. power," with "some successes."
"Sanctions have brought and kept Iran at the negotiating table. There is now a possibility for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program later this year," Smith said.
"While we have decimated Al Qaeda’s core leadership, new challenges, such as ISIL, have emerged. The president has brought an unprecedented coalition together to confront this barbaric and troubling threat and I support his call for Congress pass a resolution authorizing the use of force. It will be difficult to find agreement on the specifics, but it is important for Congress to weigh in."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) noted that Obama "has been eager to declare victory over jihadist groups," but "we can only wish it were so."
“The president presented a false choice on Iran sanctions. We can have negotiations and more economic pressure. The Obama administration has been negotiating with Tehran for over a year. Meanwhile, Tehran has advanced its nuclear capabilities," Royce said.
"The recent terror attacks in Paris also reminded us that not only ‘Je Suis Charlie,’ but we all must be vigilant," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said. "The security of our own nation, and that of our allies, is increased by sharing intelligence and security information across borders.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said, "The president has released terrorists and decimated our military. We have to work to reverse the president’s reputation where our enemies don’t fear us and our allies no longer trust us."
Obama's overall speech, as well, rubbed Republicans the wrong way.
“President Obama tonight gave more of a political speech to the Democrat base. He made no attempt to reach out to the new Republican majority in the House and the Senate. I think that is both a political mistake and a policy mistake. There wasn’t much in the speech that I could agree with," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). “I do agree that we need to fight – and he didn’t call it this – ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ I will vote for a resolution of force against ISIS if it comes up on the House floor because I believe we should fight terrorism everywhere it exists in the world.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama "made a speech that made it look like he’s going to run for office again."
"His time for running is over. His time for governing is here," McConnell said. "And in order to accomplish things over the last two years of the Obama administration, he needs to work with the Republican Congress."
“The White House warned that President Obama was going to give a ‘defiant’ speech, and that’s what he did," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). "In November, the American people spoke loud and clear, in what was nothing short of a landslide election. But instead of attempting to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans, the president dug in his heels—laying the groundwork for a do-nothing White House. This is a real shame.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she wants to get to work on the president's domestic proposals. "Many Republicans have spent years fighting to shift the tax burden from the well-off and well-connected to the middle class, but I am hopeful that public pressure will push those Republicans into working with us to put money into the pockets of the middle class, not those who need it the least," she said.