Consensus on Obama’s Final State of the Union: Light on Foreign Policy

January 13, 2016

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President Barack Obama gave his last State of the Union address last night, and there’s a good chance it was the least viewed SOTU in 20 years. Why? As Vox’s Alvin Chang notes, “In short, if there’s reason to tune in, Americans do.” So, for instance, a “striking example is in 2003, when 62 million people tuned in to listen to George W. Bush justify the invasion of Iraq, which the US did two months later.” (By way of comparison, Obama’s 2015 SOTU was watched by half that many, his smallest television audience yet.)

What about voters’ top issue?

Foreign policy, national security, terrorism, the Islamic State: These are the issues many Americans want to hear about from political leaders (especially Republicans). And yet few expected that Obama would spend much time in his final address talking about these issues. Indeed, all of these challenges were lumped together as one of four main themes he addressed.

So how did it go when he did address the question of “how to keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem?” Not so good, argues Michael Crowley for Politico. “President Obama portrayed his foreign policy as a level-headed, visionary success on Tuesday night. But that’s an argument he’s made before — and so far, Americans aren’t buying it.” Obama “mostly downplayed” the terrorist threat, “celebrated his Iran nuclear deal on an evening when cable news was fixated on the detention of 10 U.S. sailors on Iranian soil under murky circumstances,” “barely mentioned” Russian provocations, did not refer to Israel or “his two failed efforts to broker a Middle East peace deal,” and “devoted just one line to Syria’s brutal civil war.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka agrees: “The President made an enormous mistake in failing to acknowledge the failings of American foreign policy in his tenure. Russia is allying with our enemies, China is on the march, Cuba has arrested more dissidents, and Iran is now holding American sailors in a deliberate slap at the president on the day of the State of the Union. ISIS and al Qaeda have only grown, and more than a quarter of a million Syrians are dead. There is no sin in failure; the sin is in failing to admit mistakes so that they can be corrected.”

It wasn’t just those on the political right who were left wanting by the treatment foreign policy got in the speech. The Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis previewed the address with a list of “Five National Security Issues to Watch in the State of the Union and Beyond,” none of which got significant attention. And NPR national security reporter Phil Ewing summed up the foreign policy portion of the speech thus: “So the president repeated what’s become kind of the key foreign policy philosophy of his presidency, which is, don’t do stupid stuff. The problem for a lot of the president’s critics, including Republican leaders in Congress, is you can’t just say what you are not going to do. You have to lay out a roadmap for what you are going to do. And the president didn’t do that in the speech last night.”

Democrats react to foreign policy … but not really

Although Obama has been criticized for the little attention his speech gave to foreign policy issues, his party’s presidential candidates seem to agree with the approach and have replicated it in their responses. Martin O’Malley released a three-paragraph statement that focused exclusively on domestic and economic issues. Bernie Sanders told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that it sounded like Obama had been listening to Sanders’ stump speech — which is notoriously light on foreign policy substance. And Hillary Clinton issued a flurry of tweets throughout the address, only one of which contained even an oblique reference to security or foreign policy:

Spoiler alert: GOP candidates take aim after SOTU

Republican aspirants to replace Obama, on the other hand, exhibited no such wariness. They blasted his downplaying of national security. A sampling:

Jeb Bush took to Twitter:

Ted Cruz hit Obama on his refusal to use the term “radical Islamic terror,” and his failure to address the threat of terrorism: “He didn’t say a word about the Paris terror attacks, he didn’t say a word about San Bernardino. … The American people are tired of having a president who won’t acknowledge the evil we are facing.”

Chris Christie called the SOTU “story time with Barack Obama.” He went on to say, “You would think that the world is a beautiful, wonderful place. But it isn’t right now. It’s a dark and dangerous place, because of his weakness, which has led to American weakness around the world.”

In addition to calling the entire speech “boring, slow, [and] lethargic,” Donald Trump tweeted his response to comments about the Iran nuclear deal:

Marco Rubio went on Fox News to argue that Obama clearly underestimates the threat of ISIL: “No one is saying [ISIL is] going to overthrow the U.S. government. What we are saying is in the process of attacking us, hundreds of thousands of Americans could find themselves in situations over the next ten years where they’re threatened in one way or another by what’s happening [with ISIL]. … Let me put it to you this way: They’re the best funded and fastest growing terrorist group in the history of the world and need to be confronted for what they are: a growing and looming threat. This is the same president that called them a JV team two years ago.”

Obama’s disconnect with Americans?

To be fair, the SOTU was lauded by many, at least on the political left, for what Obama said on a range of issues. But when it comes to foreign policy and national security, the theme (if it isn’t clear yet) was all about how little he actually said. And data from social media platforms suggests that Americans would wanted to hear a lot more. Foreign affairs was the most talked about topic on Twitter during the speech. And on Facebook, the top five issues being discussed included Iran (first overall), ISIL, and terrorism.


John Amble is the managing editor of War on the Rocks.