WASHINGTON — A sudden national security crisis ignited by Iran’s capture of 10 U.S. sailors threatened to overshadow President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday and challenge his message that American global leadership is strong and the nation is on the rebound as he embarks on his final year in office.
The incident at the very least will complicate Obama’s effort to portray the nuclear deal with Iran concluded last year as a centerpiece of his legacy and to counter claims by critics that the escalating chaos in the Middle East is the result of a deficit of U.S. leadership.
White House aides had earlier said that Obama would use the annual showpiece speech at 9 p.m. ET to paint a picture of a country empowered by its ethnic diversity and infused with possibility while signaling he has no plans to be ushered from center stage.
The President has no plans to address the Iran crisis in his speech, White House communications director Jen Psaki said on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
Secretary of State John Kerry was leading frantic administration diplomacy designed to spare Obama the embarrassment of delivering his address with U.S. personnel still in the custody of the Iranians in the Persian Gulf.
“We have been in touch with the Iranians, we have been assured of their safety and that they will be able to move forward on their journey promptly,” Psaki said.
Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers immediately seized on the incident to charge that Obama has emboldened Iran’s aggressive behavior in its neighborhood by offering sanctions relief in return for a halting of its nuclear weapons program.
“This is the latest manifestation of the weakness of Barack Obama, that every bad actor… views Obama as a laughingstock,” Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz said on WRKO radio.
Another GOP presidential candidate, Marco Rubio, said Iran’s provocations were the result of having a “weak president” in the Oval Office. “Iran is testing the boundaries of this administration’s resolve. And they know the boundaries are pretty wide and this administration is willing to let them get away with many things,” said Rubio on Fox News.
And Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner suggested Obama delay the start of Tuesday’s speech “to talk about what has happened,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.”
‘Fix our politics’
The White House promises Obama will deliver an upbeat assessment of how far the nation has come since the crisis-shrouded first days of his administration.
According to excerpts of the speech released by the White House, Obama will tell Americans that economic opportunity, security and a sustainable, peaceful planet were only possible if the country could return to “rational, constructive debates.”
“It will only happen if we fix our politics.”
In a clear shot at the dire rhetoric of some of the Republican presidential candidates, Obama will implicitly argue that singling out groups like Muslims and minorities ran counter to the bedrock principles that had underpinned America’s strength.
“Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control,” he will say. “And each time, we overcame those fears.”
“We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before,” the excerpts said.
The President’s address is one of his last chances to command a huge prime-time television audience and talk to Americans directly after a seven-year presidency shaped by a hard-grinding economic recovery at home and chaos abroad.
Despite his desire to broadcast optimism, Obama faces the reality of a looming election that renders him a lame duck and is brimming with distrust of Washington and ruling elites, as reflected in the populism of GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
The speech will bow to political reality by dispensing with the usual long list of legislative proposals that Congress has no intention of taking up, but will press Obama’s priorities, likely including new pledges to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and to intensify the war on ISIS. He will also address the Iran nuclear deal, Psaki said on CNN.
‘We’ve got a lot of good things going for us’
Obama also hopes to counter the Republican narrative of a nation in decline under the Democrats and to implicitly intervene directly in the 2016 race by arguing that the nation still craves the politics of hope, rather than of division.
“Part of what I want to do in this last address is to remind people … we’ve got a lot of good things going for us, and if we can get our politics right, it turns out that we’re not as divided on the ideological spectrum as people make us out to be,” Obama told NBC’s “Today” show.
Obama told NBC that he did not believe the nation would embrace the message of Trump, who has vowed to build a wall on the Mexican border and has called for a temporary halt to Muslim immigration amid rising terror fears.
“I’m pretty confident that the overwhelming majority of Americans are looking for the kind of politics that does feed our hopes and not our fears, that does work together and doesn’t try to divide us, that isn’t looking for simplistic solutions and scapegoating,” Obama said, trying to shape the political battlefield for a Democratic successor.
Meanwhile, after weeks of intense campaigning, Obama is not expected to make gun control a centerpiece of his speech. But he will leave a seat open in the first lady’s guest box, in a stark reminder of silenced victims of gun violence.
Carson decries anticipated ‘rosy’ picture
Republicans agree with Obama that his presidency has been transformational — but in a bad way. They believe he has presided over anemic growth rates, wielded executive power on immigration, gun control and climate change to thwart the Constitution, is oblivious to the severity of Islamist terrorism and has engineered an era of declining American power in the world.
“At the State of the Union address tonight we’re going to be given a very rosy picture of what’s going on,” Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson told CNN. “And the fact of the matter is, you know, America is now at great risk. Our adversaries no longer fear us, our allies don’t trust us. We have to really bring our strength back.”
Tuesday’s address before a packed House chamber will also mark the debut of new House Speaker Paul Ryan — a longtime Obama rival — on the platform alongside Vice President Joe Biden at the showpiece event.
The GOP will highlight one of its rising stars, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is often touted as a possible vice presidential nominee, in its official televised response to the President’s address.
Haley will paint an unflattering picture of Obama’s America and say the nation would soon have a chance to turn the page.
“The President’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words,” Haley said in excerpts of her remarks released by Ryan’s office. “Many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels. We’re feeling a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities. Even worse, we are facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it.”
Haley also took a shot at Obama’s foreign policy record, saying a Republican president would “make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around.”