WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama declared that Iranian intransigence over its nuclear program would result in consequences, in his first State of Union address Wednesday night.
Reminding Iranian leaders of the sanctions imposed against North Korea, he stressed to applause, “They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.” He said that already “the Islamic Republic is more isolated” because of its continued defiance of international demands that it halt its nuclear program.
Obama, however, did not elaborate on what those consequences would consist of or how they would be delivered. He also didn’t use the word “sanctions” specifically in reference to Iran.
He rebuked North Korea for its nuclear program and pressed the world to reduce nuclear weapons, calling them “perhaps the greatest danger to the American people.” Iran and North Korea were among the only foreign countries singled out by Obama in a speech that ran over an hour and focused almost entirely on domestic issues.
He spoke of the need to prevail against terrorism in Afghanistan and vowed to continue bringing home American troops from Iraq.
“This war is ending, and all our troops are coming home,” he said.
Obama, however, made no reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict or the quest for Middle East peace. Instead, he primarily focused on the economy, job creation and health care, often defending his policies and taking both parties to task for playing politics and not making tough choices.
White House spokesman Bill Burton rebuffed criticism that Obama didn’t spend enough time referring to foreign issues, to which he devoted about 10 minutes of his address.
“It should be obvious to everyone who observes the President that national security is critically important to him,” Burton said, noting that “different folks have different opinions of what should be in and what should be out.”
He called attention to Obama’s speaking about “some very specific issues in terms of Iran,” as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He laid out what he thought was appropriate to talk about and continues to work on the issues that he thinks are important,” Burton said.
The State of the Union speech is traditionally one of the most closely watched events on the US political calendar. Presidents lay out their priorities for the year before both chambers of Congress and a nationwide TV audience of millions.
Obama’s speech was especially critical, coming one week after Republicans won a US Senate seat in Massachusetts that had been long held by late Democrat stalwart Edward M. Kennedy.
That left Democrats one vote shy of the 60 needed in the Senate to break Republican stalling tactics known as filibusters. The loss of the critical seat was seen by many as a message from voters troubled by high unemployment, the huge federal deficit and the acrimony and behind-the-scenes deal-making in Washington politics.
Democrats, especially those running for re-election in moderate or conservative states, now worry about their prospects ahead of the November congressional and gubernatorial elections and may be more reluctant to follow the lead of Obama, whose popularity has fallen.
Obama acknowledged the problems.
“I campaigned on the promise of change, change we can believe in, the slogan went,” he said. “And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change, or at least that I can deliver it.”
Still, in his passionate and often feisty delivery, Obama offered surprisingly little political middle ground and few concessions, particularly given the setbacks of his first year in office.
With key issues like health care overhaul and financial reform threatened by exploding partisanship, the president chided Democrats not to abandon their principles and warned Republicans against nay-saying.
“I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills,” Obama said, looking down on Democratic lawmakers packed into the House of Representatives legislative chamber.
And to minority Republicans on the other side of the aisle, the president said, “Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.”
While accepting some blame for failing to sell health care reform, Obama credited his administration for quick action to prevent a “second Great Depression” like the one in the 1930s.
“One year later the worst of the storm has passed,” he said, but acknowledged “the devastation remains. One in 10 Americans still cannot find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Home values have declined.”AP contributed to this report.