Analysis: Evening up the score

Obama had the opportunity to try to push back at the Republicans in his State of the Union speech.

Obama 311  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama debuted the arguments he will be using against his Republican rivals on the campaign trail to defend his record on the Middle East in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night.
Chief among them were the successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq and the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
He also offered strong words on topics that have already been lines of attack on the campaign trail, pledging that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon, that the US commitment to Israel was unshakeable and that America was the globe’s dominant power.
“Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he told the special joint session of Congress.
“America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs – and as long as I’m president, I intend to keep it that way.”
Council on Foreign Relations Senior Vice President James Lindsay said Obama was focused on promoting America’s greatness.
“In an implicit recognition of Republican claims that he is more interested in apologizing for America's mistakes than advancing its interests, Obama dismissed talk of US decline, and embraced American exceptionalism,” he wrote in an analysis of Obama’s speech.
“But this State of the Union address was never intended to be a policy speech,” he wrote. “It was instead the opening salvo in his 2012 presidential campaign. And Obama's message to his Republican opponents was that he has no intention of running away from his foreign policy record. He is instead going to run on it.”
With attention on the presidential race focusing almost entirely on the Republican candidates battling it out for the GOP nomination, already significant media and ad time has been devoted to attacks on Obama’s record on issues such as Iran and Israel.
Obama had the opportunity to try to even the score and push back with the spotlight on him Tuesday.
One of his more forceful comments came on Iran, on which the Republican candidates have repeatedly accused him of being weak and failing to take steps that will prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear abilities.
His declaration Tuesday night that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal” was by far most forceful of any of his previous States of the Union. Indeed, the phrase that all options are on the table is one the George W.
Bush administration was much more eager to use than the Obama White House.
Obama also characterized his efforts at engagement since coming into office as a significant factor in the international isolation of Iran and sanctions being imposed against Tehran.
“Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program now stands as one,” he said. “The regime is more isolated than ever before. Its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent.”
Republicans have hammered Obama on his willingness to talk to Iran’s leaders and don’t accept the argument that the administration’s diplomatic efforts to keep Iran from going nuclear have borne fruit.
To Obama’s talk about a world that has come together on Iran, Republican Jewish activist Tevi Troy responded: “It seems to be united in letting this happen.”
Troy once served as Jewish liaison in the Bush White House and is now an adviser to the Romney campaign, though he stressed he was not speaking on behalf of the campaign.
Troy also said Obama’s words on Israel – where he spoke of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security and “the closest military cooperation” in the two countries history – a “pre-buttal” to the attacks on Israel his campaign will be receiving.
“The Israel thing was a stark pre-buttal because he knows he’s been taking a hammering on it,” Tevi charged. “It almost seemed as if the brief Israel line didn’t fit in the speech but he put it out there so his surrogates would be able to wield the words on the campaign trail.”
But David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, argued it was a sign of the seriousness of Obama’s commitment to Israel that he mentioned the Jewish state at all in speech overwhelmingly focused on domestic issues where many major international partners were not mentioned by name.
"I think it's tremendously noteworthy that in a speech with so little foreign policy content – given Americans' focus on domestic issues right now – the president focused so concretely and viscerally on Israel and the threat posed by Iran,” he said.