Talking About the State of the Union

February 6, 2014
BY Dmitriy Shapiro
President Obama State of the Union, Jan. 2014. (Alyson Fligg/Sipa USA/Newscom)

President Obama State of the Union, Jan. 2014. (Alyson Fligg/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Moments after President Barack Obama finished his State of the Union address last week, members of Congress were already picking apart the speech.

Some, such as Tea Party favorite Rep. Steve King, thought the president was less antagonistic to congressional Republicans than in previous speeches.

But “he could have pulled all of the Obamacare out of the speech,” the Iowa Republican said. “Then I think I could have sat there relaxed.”

King called the speech predictable and said that since the president spent a large part of his address extolling the Affordable Care Act, the GOP should continue to focus on its repeal.

Obama told the joint session of Congress that while he wanted to work with Republicans, he would use executive orders to get around gridlock.

“The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress,” said Obama. “For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. … When our differences shut down or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, then we are not doing right by the American people.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat and chair of the Democratic National Committee, applauded the president’s approach.

“I thought the speech was resolute,” she told Washington Jewish Week. “I thought it was visionary. I thought it was clear and that it really struck the right balance between reaching out his hand to the Republicans and very clearly telling them, ‘Look, a time for intransigence and obstructionism is over.’”

Compared with employment and the economy, the president spent little time on foreign policy. He said that his administration’s diplomacy has succeeded in launching an international effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons and initiating the Joint Plan of Action with Iran to roll back the threat of its developing a nuclear weapons program.

He tried to put to rest the distrust among Americans about whether Iran intends to be forthcoming about its nuclear ambitions. He said that trust will not be an element of any long-term agreement with Iran.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) did not share the president’s optimism, telling WJW that the testimony she heard from Iran experts earlier in the day did not paint the same picture.

“They said: ‘You know, we can call it a success if that makes us feel better, but it is not. It’s a very weak deal,’ “stated Ros-Lehtinen. “It’s a very low standard.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) was also critical of the interim agreement with Iran.

“It was wishful thinking at best, and it’s a rotten agreement at worst,” he said. “We are giving up what we are doing right now, and they are giving up not doing something in the future. In other words, they aren’t giving up anything, and we’re giving up something.”

Applause in the chamber predictably followed party lines. Yet, when president Obama said that he would veto the Menendez-Kirk bill — which calls for new sanctions on Iran after the JPA expires — there was little applause from either side of the aisle.

Asked about the president’s position against Menendez-Kirk, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill, said that even though he supports the president’s efforts at diplomacy, he still maintains that the Menendez-Kirk bill will not stand in the way of diplomacy as the administration has suggested.

“My conviction is that the sanctions bill expresses the view that tougher sanctions will be needed if the talks fail and that a vote is unnecessary as long as the progress in the negotiations is meaningful and visible,” explained Blumenthal. “We can delay a vote until the negotiations no longer are producing visible and meaningful progress, and I think the president should view us as strengthening his hand rather than detracting from his effort.”

By far the shortest part of the president’s speech was the single sentence on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there, to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side,” said Obama.

The significance of the president’s use of the phrase “Jewish state” was not lost on lawmakers. With Israel demanding that a future Palestinian state recognize it as a Jewish state, the term signaled to Israel’s many supporters in Congress that the president saw eye to eye with them, said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.).

“I think it’s the substance that matters, and he was very clear in terms of his determination to achieve peace,” said Levin. “But with Israel’s security absolutely essential, you don’t have to make a long speech to be clear where you stand.”

Rohrabacher, who during a visit to Israel met with that country’s security personnel, was unconvinced.

“We met with a Palestinian negotiator and our conversation confirmed for us that the Palestinians are not serious about reaching an agreement, because they are unwilling to commit to an agreement with Israel that does not include their right to return millions of people to the pre-1967 borders,” said Rohrabacher. “Unless they can do that, they are not serious, and that would destroy Israel.”

Levin wouldn’t say what he thought the chances for the success of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were but expressed optimism that both sides were at least trying.

“That’s exactly what should happen,” said Levin. “Because someday, the issues will be worked out, and Israel’s security will be absolutely sustained.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

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