In his State of the Union address
on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will appeal directly to the American people to
shore up support for his ambitious second-term foreign-policy goals. But the
audience the president really needs to win over is his nominal Democratic
allies on Capitol Hill, who've shown a
recurring willingness to buck the White House on a number of key foreign-policy
initiatives. For instance: A sizable chunk of Democrats in Congress oppose the
president's sanctions policy on Iran; many also want a faster withdrawal from
Afghanistan; and the party is split on the proper limits of government
surveillance. With this in mind, we asked a handful of influential Democrats to
outline their desires for the president's address to the nation on the biggest global
issues of the day.
On Tuesday, Obama is
expected to announce a milestone for 2014: The end of America's military
participation in the war in Afghanistan. But unifying Democrats behind any one
withdrawal plan is proving difficult thanks to the long war's widespread
As it stands, Obama needs Afghan
President Hamid Karzai to sign a negotiated bilateral security agreement to
establish the future role of the U.S. military, something the mercurial Karzai has
refused to do so far. Despite the fact that only 17 percent of Americans support the war, some
Democrats believe the United States cannot abandon the country wholesale and cede power
to the Taliban. They want the president to call out Karzai directly in his
"I hope he puts additional pressure
on President Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement and signals that
he will soon announce post-2014 U.S. troop levels," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Cable.
Kaine and other moderate Democrats
want the Obama administration to leave a small number of U.S. troops in
Afghanistan to train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. A
widely floated plan for residual forces in Afghanistan is 10,000 troops, but
some Democrats want out completely -- a path the military calls the "zero
"There's no military solution in
Afghanistan, and we need to bring our young men and women home," Rep. Barbara
Lee (D-Calif.) told The Cable. She expressed
hope that Obama would voice the "sentiments" of Vice President Joe Biden in his
Tuesday address and call for a much smaller residual force -- if any at all.
Biden, a staunch opponent of the Obama administration's Afghanistan surge, has long
wanted the United States to focus on a counterterrorism mission that would require
relatively modest numbers of troops. His views were ridiculed in former Defense
Secretary Robert Gates's new book, but it has been coming closer in line with
the administration's and the military's thinking.
Overall, top Democrats would like
U.S. troops to draw down sooner rather than later. Last year, House Minority
Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she wanted U.S. combat troops to
exit Afghanistan before the 2014 target. And in September, the Senate, backed
by a majority of Democrats, voted to accelerate the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Iran Nuclear Deal
Without a doubt, the president's
most contentious foreign-policy initiative is his interim nuclear deal with
Iran. A majority of lawmakers in the House and Senate don't trust Tehran and
have pledged support for new legislation that would immediately slap
hard-hitting sanctions on the Islamic Republic if no deal were reached. The
administration believes the bill would torpedo the talks and push Iran away
from the negotiating table. To the White House's surprise and anger, the Senate
bill is being pushed by one of the Senate's most powerful Democrats: Senate
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey. Dubbed the Nuclear
Weapon Free Iran Act, the bill has 59 supporters in the Senate, including 16 Democrats, though momentum has stalled and some of those who were
initially in favor of the bill have in recent days seemed to signal that they
are rethinking whether to back it. In the meantime, Democrats who've stuck
their necks out for the White House to oppose the bill want the president to
make a strong case for holding off on the legislation.
"The State of the Union offers the
president another opportunity to explain to Congress and the American people
what's at stake and why he believes Congress should withhold for now action on
new sanctions," Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) told The Cable. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Johnson
played a pivotal role in preventing new sanctions legislation from having a
vote in his committee. He stands by that decision and wants the president to
make the case for waiting. "This may be the last best chance to resolve the
Iran crisis by diplomacy, so the president is absolutely right to fully test
Iran's leaders," he said.
Other Democrats believe that by
passing new sanctions legislation now, it would strengthen the White House's
negotiating position without imploding a deal. Those hawkish Democrats have been
discouraged by last week's remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad
Zarif that Tehran "did not agree to
dismantle anything" in its interim nuclear deal with six world powers. They'll
be looking for the president to issue a warning to Iran's leaders. "Those kinds
of statements give a lot of folks pause," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), one of
the 59 senators who pledged support for the bill co-sponsored by Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). "We've got to get this right."
But in pushing back against
Democrats such as Menendez and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Obama will need to
choose his words carefully. Previous White House efforts to label sanctions
efforts a "march to war" resulted in furious rebukes from Democratic leaders.
Earlier this month, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer denounced such assertions as "untrue" and
"irresponsible." It's unlikely that Obama will use similarly aggressive
language in his State of the Union address.
The most closely watched issue,
though, is likely to be government surveillance reform, an issue that has come
to the fore because of revelations from National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden about
the NSA's efforts to collect and store vast amounts of data on the
communications of ordinary Americans. Obama proposed modest NSA reforms earlier
this month during a speech at the Justice Department, but the issue has sparked
bitter divisions within the Democratic Party.
The highest-ranking Democrats on
the House and Senate intelligence committees, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger and Sen.
Dianne Feinstein, largely support the president and the intelligence community.
Like the president, they've defended the NSA's work while calling for modest
reforms like placing additional reporting and transparency requirements on the
NSA. Importantly, the president left
Congress to decide on how the changes to metadata collection would be
Ruppersberger told The Cable that it's important that the executive, judiciary, and legislative
branches of government all work together to implement surveillance reforms.
"I believe that all three branches
of government will have a role to play in these reforms," he said. "I agree
with many of the president's recommendations for reform to our national
However, Ruppersberger and
Feinstein are reluctant to take too many tools away from the NSA in the name of
privacy. Feinstein, in particular, has repeatedly defended the NSA's collection
of metadata and has introduced legislation that largely codifies the practice.
Other Democrats are calling for
more substantial reforms. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), for example, does not
support storing U.S. phone records with a third party or the NSA: He believes
phone companies should keep the metadata to avoid consolidating too much power
within the agency. Other Democrats
go even further: They believe the Obama administration, as it's staffed today,
is incapable of implementing real reform and requires a personnel shake-up. On
Monday, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) criticized Obama for letting Director of
National Intelligence James Clapper play a role in the reform effort after
Clapper was shown to have knowingly misled Congress while talking about the NSA
bulk collection program. "Asking Director Clapper, and other federal
intelligence officials who misrepresented programs to Congress and the courts,
to report to you on needed reforms and the future role of government surveillance
is not a credible solution," read a letter Grayson signed this week.
In any event, the president can
expect strong opposition to his policies from the Republican Party, as he has
throughout his entire presidency. Obama has rarely faced so much public
criticism from his own Democrats, though. Tuesday will give him one of his
last, best chances to rally the troops for battles that he never thought that
he'd need them to fight.