To hear his progressive critics tell it, Barack Obama has long been given to preemptive compromise. Even when his rhetoric has soared at its highest, the cautious president has always been careful to offer his Republican critics an olive branch—often one torn directly from the trunk of his own agenda. On health reform, carbon emission caps, Wall Street regulation, and a host of other issues, the administration has repeatedly negotiated away the most progressive responses to the issues of our day long before the real compromises are even made.
So by the standards of this Obama, his 2013 State of the Union address was surprisingly combative and partisan. From a moving call for gun control legislation to an unexpectedly specific proposal to raise the minimum wage—with an additionally satisfying jab at skyrocketing CEO pay—the president laid out an agenda that appears unabashedly liberal in today’s Washington.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t careful to cover his right flank.
In calling for comprehensive immigration reform and action to combat climate change, for example—a belated but welcome redress to two painfully marginalized issues—Obama still felt compelled to feed right-wing talking points about border security and energy policy. Given a rising tide of violence by U.S. Border Patrol agents and an unprecedented wave of inhumane deportations, it was hard not to wince when Obama lauded the “progress” his administration had made on “border security,” which he called the first step towards “real reform.” Similarly, the president’s vow to “keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits” hardly squared with his vow to take action on the climate—especially when “red tape” is exactly what’s needed to stop the Keystone XL monstrosity, a proposed pipeline project that scientists have warned means “game over” for the climate.
And let’s get one other thing straight: America’s war in Afghanistan is not yet coming to an end. The president’s promise to withdraw some 34,000 troops in the next year is a major step in the right direction, but that still only brings troop levels down to where they were when Obama took office—in other words, almost exactly where they were when Bush left. “This is only a ‘withdrawal,’” John Glaser points out, “because [Obama] decided to triple troop levels.” And even after the formal 2014 withdrawal, thousands of U.S. troops are expected to remain behind in a nebulous “training and counterterrorism” capacity.
Additionally, Obama’s pledge “to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans,” even if it no longer means sending “tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad,” is no empty promise. It’s an unambiguous vow to continue America’s undeclared and unregulated drone war, a war that has seen bombs dropped on Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and even the Philippines—countries for the most part far removed from any U.S. warzone. And given the administration’s refusal to defend its actions in court or publicly disclose its rationale for targeting U.S. citizens—to say nothing of its callous disregard for the war’s heartbreaking human costs—the only empty rhetoric here was Obama’s insistence that we “enlist our values in the fight.”
Some commenters have pointed to the president’s rather formulaic condemnations of Iran and Syria—as well as, of course, his proposed drawdown in Afghanistan—as evidence that Obama is seeking to extricate the United States from conflicts abroad and dedicate himself to “nation-building at home.” But unlike virtually anything else Obama discussed in his speech—which did outline an admirable if imperfect legislative agenda—the president could, all by himself, down the drones and end the war in Afghanistan tomorrow. But that’s one olive branch he hasn’t broken off yet.
The president may well be banking his legacy on his domestic agenda. But make no mistake: With the United States waging an opaque and clandestine war in an ever-widening global battlefield, nation-building at home does not mean an end to nation-bombing abroad. And that may be the biggest compromise of all.