In his fifth State of the Union address, President Obama vowed to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own using his executive power. Obama announced a wage hike for federal contract workers, the creation of a "starter savings account" to help millions of people save for retirement, and plans to establish new fuel efficiency standards for trucks. On foreign policy, President Obama pledged to veto new sanctions on Iran while the interim nuclear deal is in effect and renewed his call for the closure of Guantánamo Bay. On Afghanistan, President Obama said this year would see the end of the U.S. war, but he acknowledged some U.S. forces would remain in the country to train Afghan troops and carry out counterterrorism attacks. We get reaction to Obama’s speech from three guests: "Dirty Wars" film producer and writer Jeremy Scahill; former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert of Demos; and Lorella Praeli of the United We Dream coalition. "The State of the Union address, historically, is sort of propaganda," Scahill says. "On the issue of foreign policy, there is a radical disconnect between what the president was publicly projecting with his remarks and what his policies actually amount to on the ground."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In his fifth State of the Union address, President Obama vowed on Tuesday to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own using his executive power. Obama announced a wage hike for federal contractors, the creation of a "starter savings account" to help millions of people save for retirement, and plans to establish new fuel efficiency standards for trucks.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all, the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.
Let’s face it: That belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.
Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.
So, our job is to reverse these trends. It won’t happen right away, and we won’t agree on everything. But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Obama also pledged to veto new sanctions on Iran while the interim nuclear deal is in effect, and renewed his call for the closure of Guantánamo Bay. On Afghanistan, President Obama said this year would see the end of the U.S. war, but he acknowledged some U.S. forces would remain in the country to train Afghan troops and carry out counterterrorism attacks.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over.
After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by three guests.
Jeremy Scahill is producer and writer of the documentary Dirty Wars, which has been nominated for an Academy Award. He is also author of the book by the same name. He is a senior investigative reporter at First Look Media, which will launch in the coming months.
Bob Herbert is a distinguished senior fellow with Demos. From 1993 to 2011, he was an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.
And Lorella Praeli is with us, director of advocacy and policy at the United We Dream coalition. She attended President Obama’s State of the Union address at the invitation of Democratic Congressmember Zoe Lofgren of California.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! to get reaction to the State of the Union address. We’ll be playing excerpts of President Obama’s speech. Bob Herbert, though, just to begin, from each of you, let’s get an overall reaction to the address.
BOB HERBERT: Well, you know, I thought the president had been dealt a tough hand, in part because of Republican obstructionism, in part because of some missteps on his own—excuse me. And I think he played that hand about as well as you could have expected last night. It was a pretty good speech, maybe a little too long. I think they’re all too long. But it was a pretty good speech. He highlighted a lot of things. He defended the Affordable Care Act in a way that the Democrats had not done for quite a while. And, you know, I give him pretty good marks on the speech. It was a—it was a tough task that he had.
AMY GOODMAN: Lorella Praeli?
LORELLA PRAELI: Good morning. I think that he could have done a lot better on immigration. I think that the president started and used really the framework of this is a year of action; whether or not Congress acts, I can and will do more. And I think he recognized many struggles, but didn’t really recognize the pain that his deportation policies continue to cause in our community. We’re about to hit two million deportations. And so, there could have been a greater acknowledgment of the pain and the reality in America that is the result of inaction in Congress, but also of a president that has chosen to lead with a deportation-first policy. And so, we think that he could have done more. We think that he should have said that "I will also use my pen to take action until Congress decides to act on immigration."
AMY GOODMAN: And Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, I think that there—you know, the State of the Union address, historically, is sort of propaganda. And I think that there was, on the issue of foreign policy, a radical disconnect between what the president was publicly projecting with his remarks and what his policies actually amount to on the ground. You know, it was significant, I think. Obama, I believe, is the first president in history to use the word "drone" during a State of the Union speech, and he said that he has restricted the use of drones to cases only when it’s prudent. And yet, a month ago, a drone strike in Yemen on December 12th wiped out a wedding party and massacred people in Yemen. Now, it’s being investigated by the U.S. government, but why did that strike happen? What kind of an intelligence failure or breakdown led to the killing of these civilians? A few days ago, the U.S. bombed Somalia. The U.S. is increasingly involved in covert operations in Mali. In Iraq, the CIA is ramping up its paramilitary activity. In Afghanistan, when the president says we’re going to draw down and we’re going to focus on the counterterrorism mission, what they really mean is these hunt-kill squads that come from the military’s Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA’s paramilitary division.
What I thought was significant also is what wasn’t mentioned in the speech—Egypt, where the U.S. is backing a dictator in General Sisi and supported a coup by not labeling it a coup when General Sisi went on television and said the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, is no longer president, and the U.S. refused to label it a coup because then it would have been required to cut off military assistance to Egypt, which is of strategic importance to not only this White House, but to the U.S. government writ large. So, Central African Republic was not mentioned, where there is a horrifying situation playing out with massacres left and right inside of that country. And Pakistan wasn’t mentioned, a place where the U.S. continues to engage in a covert war with very, very high stakes. So, I think while the president is saying he doesn’t want the U.S. to be on a permanent war footing, everything his administration has done on a counterterrorism or national security level, especially with the assassination czar, John Brennan, has been to ensure that the U.S. is going to continue to embrace assassination, covert operations as a central component of its national security policy.
And finally, President Obama addressed the issue of the National Security Agency and tried to reassure the public, "Hey, we’re not spying on you." And yet, he has done nothing to hold James Clapper accountable for the perjury that he committed in front of the United States Congress, and at the same time is jailing and prosecuting whistleblowers. The fact of the matter is, if you read the stories that have come out via Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and others documenting the abuses of the National Security Agency against Americans and non-Americans alike, this is a major scandal, and we would not be debating it if it wasn’t for Edward Snowden. And I think it’s telling that the heads of the CIA’s torture programs and people like Donald Rumsfeld, who is a war criminal, are on a book tour, while Edward Snowden is in exile, and Thomas Drake, former NSA official, had his career ruined, and John Kiriakou, former CIA operative, was sent to federal prison after he had blown the whistle on aspects of the waterboarding program.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and get more reaction to the details of President Obama’s State of the Union address. Our guests, Bob Herbert of Demos; Lorella Praeli, United We Dream coalition; Jeremy Scahill, producer of the Oscar-nominated film Dirty Wars. Back in a minute.