President Obama delivers the State of the Union address Jan. 28 at the Capitol. (Larry Downing / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The country must maintain a strong military but “move off” a permanent war footing and look toward partnerships, diplomatic solutions and precision operations for dealing with world threats, President Obama said in his State of the Union speech Tuesday.
In an address that focused largely on domestic policy and economic growth and less on foreign relations and national security, Obama emphasized the importance of diplomacy, counterterrorism operations and allied cooperation over “large scale deployments that drain our strength and may unilaterally feed extremism.”
Acknowledging ongoing threats in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, he said strengthening defenses is important, but in many cases, like Iran, “we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”
“I strongly believe our leadership and security cannot depend on our military alone,” Obama said.
The president promised to “keep faith” with troops by investing in the Defense Department, giving the services the “capabilities they need to succeed in future missions,” but was short on detail, giving no insight into the upcoming budget deliberations.
He did, however, promises to reform surveillance programs and impose “strict limits on drone operations.”
The president spoke proudly of drawing down the war in Afghanistan and in the most memorable moment of the evening, lauded the sacrifices of service members like Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, who was wounded Oct. 1, 2009, in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment.
Obama met Remsburg before he was injured during a D-Day commemoration in Normandy, France, and later visited the Army Ranger, who lost the use of his left arm and right eye and suffered brain damage during the blast, twice during his long recovery.
“And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama said, bringing the chamber to its feet in applause that lasted longer than any other time during the speech, including the end.
“Men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy has never been easy,” he added.
Emphasizing his long-term commitment to veterans, Obama pledged to continue supporting them as they transition to civilian life, improving employment opportunities, maintaining their access to health care, including mental health treatment, and speeding the compensation claims process.
“As this time of war draws to a close, a new generation of heroes returns to civilian life. We’ll keep slashing that backlog so our veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned and our wounded warriors receive health care — including mental healthcare —that they need,” Obama said.
But the president again gave little specifics, promising support for veterans through ongoing programs like Joining Forces and jobs initiatives.
Some veterans in the chamber praised the commitment to veterans but expressed disappointment the president did not address concerns facing active duty personnel, military retirees and veterans, including pay and benefits reform and military policy issues.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America founder Paul Reickhoff, a guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said he was glad Obama “reminded our nation of its commitment to the men and women in uniform” but added:
“We are disappointed the president did not address retirement benefits for our men and women in uniform. Veterans across the country are reeling from the surprise attack to their earned benefits,” Reickhoff said. “It’s time to restore the retirement cuts.”
The time devoted to military matters in the 2014 State of the Union address was similar to the president’s previous speeches. Less than a quarter of his annual addresses have focused substantially on the military, veterans’ issues and national security policy.
The Republican rebuttal, given by House Republican Conference chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., also focused largely on domestic concerns, including education, opportunity and empowerment.
Its one nod to the military came in the form of thanks, to the family of Spokane, Wash., native and Marine Sgt. Jacob Hess, who died on New Years Day in Afghanistan.
“Tonight, I simply offer a prayer ... for Sgt. Hess’s family, your family and for our larger American family,” said McMorris Rodgers, the wife of a retired Navy commander.
The president will begin traveling Wednesday to promote proposals mentioned in the address, such as minimum wage hikes, manufacturing programs and unemployment. He will make stops in Lanham, Md., West Mifflin, Pa., and Waukesha, Wis.