In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama reflected on his tenure in office and outlined his vision for the country — not just for his final year in office, but for the “next five years, 10 years and beyond” — and drew mixed reactions from the Jewish community.
Barbara Goldberg Goldman, chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council’s Women’s Leadership Network, watched the State of the Union from the White House on Jan. 12 surrounded by others who had campaigned for the president in 2008 and 2012.
“It was quite an emotional moment for me,” said Goldberg Goldman, adding that it brought back memories of the night before Obama’s first election. “I remember standing in a tent and watching tears fall down his cheeks during a speech that was really riveting. It confirmed for me, at that moment, why I worked so hard for him to get elected.”
She has been a fierce defender of the president’s record and echoed the successes Obama outlined in his reflection on the last seven years, namely, the addition of 14 million new jobs over 70 straight months, an uptick in high school graduation rates and the expansion of health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare.
The president dedicated a significant portion of his final State of the Union to his administration’s foreign-policy achievements and goals for the future.
“The third big question we have to answer is how to keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem,” Obama said.
He cited the Iraq war launched under his predecessor, George W. Bush, as an example of a policy that weakens the United States.
“[We] can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis,” Obama said. “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq? — and we should have learned it by now.”
Instead, Obama said, he favors a foreign policy that “says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us and make sure other countries pull their own weight.”
“He has brought the image of the United States of America back to where it belongs,” said Goldberg Goldman. “He has brought it back to an image of strength, of leadership, of success. The rhetoric coming from the other side is nonsense.”
And, she said, paraphrasing former Israeli President Shimon Peres, Obama has “done more for the State of Israel … than any other leaders of the free world.”
But Israel was not mentioned at all during the president’s address, which did not go unnoticed by Obama’s Republican foes.
“Israel, our dear friend and the only free democracy in the Middle East, wasn’t mentioned at all during the speech. Our friend and ally Ukraine was inexplicably referred to as a Russian ‘client state,’” Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) said in a statement. “This reflects a lack of understanding of geopolitical reality. Sadly, this is what we’ve come to expect from President Obama.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, touted as a contender for the Republican vice presidential spot, delivered her party’s response and spoke of Israel while lambasting Obama’s deal with Iran.
“We would make agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran and not the other way around,” she said.
Obama did not mention the 10 American sailors captured the day of the State of the Union by the Iranian Navy after two small U.S. naval vessels entered Iranian waters. Critics of the nuclear deal say that while Iran is complying with its narrow strictures, it is also expanding its influence and mischief-making in the region.
“The president touted his nuclear deal with Tehran, yet what the president didn’t say is that, since the deal, we have seen an increasingly bellicose regime flouting the international community, daring us to take action against its illicit behavior and then threatening to walk away from the nuclear deal if we do respond,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.,) chairwoman of the House Middle East subcommittee, said in a statement.
Aron Schwartz, who serves as the communications vice chair for the Montgomery County Young Republicans, said the State of the Union wasn’t worth his time.
“It was nothing but lies. [Obama] was patting himself on the back for doing nothing,” said the Pikesville native, who credits his modern Orthodox upbringing with shaping his libertarian views.
The speech crystallized the objections Schwartz has with Obama’s recent actions — executive actions on gun control, in particular, which Schwartz dubbed “illegal” — and with the president’s legacy as a whole.
“Liberal politicians think the government is your lord and savior. It will save you and take care of all your problems,” he said. “It can’t. It won’t. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Jared Feldman, vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, took a more measured tone.
“I think that there’s several really positive things about the past seven years and some things, as the president referred to, [that] are regrettable,” said Feldman.
“Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest,” said Obama. “Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
The president is a “polarizing figure,” Feldman said, though he didn’t rest the blame solely on Obama. “The president doesn’t get to instantaneously change the conversation or rework the policies of the last 200 years.”
“For an organization like JCPA, which is built on a notion of consensus and building coalitions, the partisanship that has turned into gridlock is really troubling,” Feldman added. “I think from all accounts, both from the Americans and Israel, the cooperation between the United States and Israel is terrific, but the rhetoric around the issue was very concerning for those of us who care about the stability of the United States-Israel relationship.”
On a hopeful note, Feldman said that he was pleased by the pieces of the president’s address that spoke to building opportunity.
“There are a lot of impediments and obstacles that too many American children face to unlocking their potential, [and] it’s a tragedy for us as a society,” said Feldman. “[We need] to be mindful of how do we empower our neighbors and, in doing so, empower ourselves.”
JTA contributed to this report.