President Obama spent a lot of time in his State of the Union address responding to Donald Trump without naming him. The president denounced the politics of fear, of inwardness, scapegoating minorities, and Trump’s conviction that the United States is undergoing economic or military decline. But Trump did not absorb all of Obama’s jibes. The president drew clear lines of distinction against the other two leading Republicans, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Cruz and Rubio have offered contrasting ideological approaches to foreign policy — and, especially, opposing ISIS. Cruz has revived the isolationist tradition of ignoring the world except for occasionally bombing parts of it to smithereens. Rubio has instead embraced the neoconservative doctrine of using ground troops to project force and promote democratic governments. Obama very clearly attacked both philosophies in succession:
The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage. [Cruz]
We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now. [Rubio]
Of course Obama proceeded to expound his internationalist position, before returning to a contrast against both Cruz’s isolationism and Rubio’s neoconservatism: “American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world — except when we kill terrorists; [Cruz] or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling. [Rubio]”
The State of the Union address provided a forum for Obama to insert himself into the presidential campaign and resist the habit of the opposing party’s assumptions about the state of the world to gain currency through repetition. It also showed that he is paying close attention to the Republican race — and not only to the candidate who is grabbing all the headlines.