House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Jan. 13, 2015.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Jan. 13, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – Congressman Mac Thornberry has not backed a presidential candidate yet, but he says whoever succeeds President Barack Obama next year will face a “whale of a mess” and a United States with waning military clout around the world.

The Texas Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday laid out his vision for the military in 2016, warning of growing security threats that endanger the future of the country. It was a dark counterpoint to Obama’s optimistic final State of the Union address delivered the night before, which made a case for America’s strong global standing.

“The world is more dangerous today than it was in 2009. Despite the president’s claim last night, that is not just ‘hot air.’ That is reality,” Thornberry said during his policy speech at the National Press Club.

As the presidential election nears, Thornberry and his Republican colleagues are battling Democrats to sway public perceptions of the Obama military and foreign policy track record over the last seven years. Voters worried about a decline in the country’s military might and global influence under the Democratic administration might be more likely to vote Republican in November.

The chairman of the House Armed Services panel is one of the most powerful military policy voices on Capitol Hill, next to his counterpart in the Senate, John McCain of Arizona.

“I said earlier that the United States is a unique force for good in the world. If we do not have the ability to continue to be that force for good, or if we are unwilling to play that role, someone else will step in to fill the vacuum. That’s what seems to be happening all around the world,” Thornberry said.

He said the stakes are “enormously high.” For proof, the congressman ran through a list of recent news headlines about the Islamic State seeking chemical weapons, Russia meddling with the Ukrainian power grid and North Korea’s claims that it tested a nuclear bomb.

McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- who has been ringing the alarm over growing threats -- said the president has been unable to communicate a clear strategy against the Islamic State and has ignored the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

“Our nation does not need lofty words. It needs bold action. Our nation does not need abstract calls to hope. It needs a concrete strategy to confront the challenges of a more dangerous world,” McCain said in a released statement. “Unfortunately, it appears these tasks will be left to the next president.”

Republicans have criticized Obama throughout his presidency for being naïve about national security threats and a weak leader on defense, from his initial misjudgment of the Islamic State’s potency in Iraq and Syria to his administration’s controversial nuclear deal with Iran last year.

But the criticism is intensifying as current GOP frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz compete for the party nomination – and for a chance to face the Democratic presidential nominee in November. After Islamic State-linked terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., security is likely to become one of the central issues in the election.

The president shot back at his Republican critics during his State of the Union speech Tuesday.

“I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker,” he said. “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.”

Obama said the country spends more on military forces than the next eight highest-spending nations combined and fields the greatest fighting force in the history of the world.

“No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin … when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead, they call us,” he said. Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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