Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Speech On Capitol Hill, Obama Requests Few Specifics Of Lawmakers


At long last, President Obama and congressional leaders have found something on which they agree.


It's that they will not accomplish that much together this year. In his final State of the Union speech, the president left out many big proposals. Instead, he followed the approach we heard about yesterday from his former speechwriter.

GREENE: He told a story. He said he would position this nation to face big challenges in many years to come. The talk, though, took little account of this coming year, and some Republicans seem just fine with that. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The unspoken message that passed from the president to Republicans last night was that he and Congress will need little of each other this election year. As far as Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada was concerned, all he heard in the speech was so long.

DEAN HELLER: It was a farewell speech. That's the way I took it. I thought it was very clear that he realizes and recognizes that this is going into his eighth year, you know, that after seven years, there's not a lot that's going to be done here.

CHANG: One reason is Congress will only be in session for 80-some days before the election. Even South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley used her Republican address to focus on what lay beyond Obama.


NIKKI HALEY: If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we'd put the brakes on runaway spending and debt.

CHANG: And if Republican did win the White House, many GOP lawmakers say expect a more aggressive response to the threat of ISIS. The president spoke of a patient and disciplined military strategy, words Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin scoffed at.

RON JOHNSON: We don't have a strategy for defeating ISIS, and he's just downplaying the threat. Yeah, I realize ISIS doesn't represent an existential threat to America. But, boy, they could - you know, a concerted effort by terrorists could do a great deal of economic harm.

CHANG: Not just economic harm - House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy blamed the White House for putting the safety of the entire global community at risk.

KEVIN MCCARTHY: I think when America steps back and you allow people like Iran, when you allow others - Putin - to step in and lead, you get chaos, and you get an unsafe world, like we do today.

CHANG: One of the very few specific requests the president did make during his speech was for Congress to pass an authorization for the use of military force. But Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker says there'd be no point to that because the White House already insists it has the legal authority to fight ISIS.

BOB CORKER: Seems like a debate that is being done for no outcome that's going to be different than where we are today. So - and I think that, you know, there are sub-agendas to the debate. And one of the sub-agendas is to try to limit the next president's ability to deal with this in a manner they see fit.

CHANG: Even though he knows presidential politics will overtake the agenda on Capitol Hill, Obama called on lawmakers last night to turn down the dial on partisan rancor. But Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina found that ironic after watching the White House go around Congress and issue executive actions to defer deportations and expand background checks for gun sales.

MARK SANFORD: It's this notion of, I don't need a House or a Senate; I need a pen, that creates some of that division.

CHANG: And on some issues, even the president's own party is divided. Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown opposes the Pacific Rim trade deal the White House wants Congress to ratify this year and says Obama should heed the advice of a former Senate Republican leader.

SHERROD BROWN: As Trent Lott used to say, you don't vote on a trade agreement in an even-numbered year. And implicit in what Lott was saying is the voters don't like these trade agreements, and they'll punish the senators that would be voting for it.

CHANG: In other words, at least wait until December to get anything hard done. Ailsa Change, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.