Tensions between liberal Democrats and President Obama are bubbling up as the president heads to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to deliver his final State of the Union address to a restless Congress.
Reaction to Obama’s legislative priorities has always been a largely partisan affair, with Democrats traditionally praising his policy prescriptions and Republicans railing against a president they’ve long accused of being out of touch.
In few forums is the divide more evident than during the State of the Union, where the response in the House chamber typically cuts along party lines.
But recent clashes between liberals and the White House over high-profile issues as diverse as trade, Iran sanctions and deportations invite a different dynamic to this year’s speech, where Obama is expected to defend those policies as part of a concerted push to wrap up loose ends and burnish his legacy in the twilight of his presidency.
A former Democratic leadership aide said the prominence of those issues — combined with the vocal opposition from Obama’s own liberal base — puts the president in a tougher spot this year than in speeches past.
“There has been tension from the very beginning,” the former aide said. “But it’s pretty pronounced right now.”
For Democrats, the timing is not ideal. Party leaders want to forge a united front in a presidential election year when they’re trying to mold an image as the party of shared values fighting for American workers and families in the face of an obstructionist GOP that prioritizes corporations and other well-heeled special interests.
Obama has largely done well in reconciling rifts with congressional Democrats, but the growing outcry over his Iran policy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the deportations of illegal immigrants highlights how his focus on legacy-building is conflicting at times with his party’s priorities.
Indeed, a group of House Democrats on Monday held a press conference introducing the State of the Union not with a show of solidarity with their White House ally but by condemning the TPP, a mammoth trade deal among 12 Pacific Rim countries that would encompass as much as 40 percent of the world’s economy.
Liberal Democrats in both chambers have hammered the accord as lacking sufficient protections for the environment, food safety, workers’ rights overseas, and jobs and wages at home, among other concerns. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has joined that chorus.
The critics on Monday — including top Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Peter DeFazio (Ore.) — said they wanted to “show a unified front against a bad trade agreement and the dangerous effects that it can have on the country.”
The rift over Obama’s immigration policy is even more stark.
The administration infuriated liberals this month by rounding up more than 120 people in the country illegally who had been denied asylum and now face deportation, primarily to Central America. Many of those arrested are women and children who arrived as part of the 2014 migrant surge at the Texas-Mexico border.
The critics say the operation risks the safety of those families upon their return to some of the most violent countries in the world, particularly El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
On Tuesday, just hours before Obama’s speech, the Democratic critics plan to unveil a letter to Obama urging an immediate halt to the deportations by granting the immigrants temporary protective status.
Roughly 90 House Democrats have already signed on.
The deportation fight has also led to a crescendo of charges that the president too often fails to consult even his closest allies on Capitol Hill when devising policy.
Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said much of the frustration surrounding the recent raids stems from the fact that the CHC “had no involvement … prior to this decision being made.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, said there’s “no question there was a failure to communicate.”
And Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a tireless immigrant rights advocate, noted “a real sense of outrage and a lack of respect” among Hispanic Democrats.
“[They] take on actions with no consultation,” he charged recently. “There’s no communication whatsoever.”
A third issue likely to gain attention in Tuesday’s speech involves Obama’s controversial Middle East policy. Lawmakers in both parties are fuming that the administration has not installed tougher sanctions on Iran following a pair of ballistic missile tests conducted by the country late last year in defiance of United Nations guidelines.
Instead, the administration appears poised to begin lifting the sanctions at the heart of Obama’s historic Iran nuclear deal. That agreement — struck among Tehran, Washington and five other global powers — is designed to block Iran from building nuclear weapons in exchange for the removal of long-standing oil and financial sanctions.
Secretary of State John KerryJohn Kerry Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington Biden confirms 30 percent global methane reduction goal, urges 'highest possible ambitions' 9/11 and US-China policy: The geopolitics of distraction MORE said last week that lifting some sanctions “could come … sooner rather than later.”
The absence of new sanctions drew a storm of criticism, not least from a group of furious Democrats who wrote to the president warning of the need to “take immediate, punitive action and send a clear message to Iran that violating international laws, treaties and agreements will have serious consequences.”
The group included influential Reps. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
House Republicans have scheduled a vote Wednesday on legislation to bar Obama from lifting sanctions as dictated by the nuclear deal for any Iranian bank with known ties to terrorist groups or the country’s ballistic missile program.
Most Democrats are lining up against the bill, saying it’s designed to sink the nuclear deal altogether, and it received no Democratic support during last week’s markup in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
But Democrats have the issue on their radar, and they’ve offered two alternative proposals designed to apply tougher sanctions without undermining the nuclear deal.
On all of those issues, Obama is facing a wary Congress in Tuesday’s speech. The former leadership aide warned against expectations that the controversies would be resolved afterward.
“Obama has been a polarizing figure in this country for eight years,” the former aide said. “It’s not going to go away tomorrow.”