Why Obama’s message to marines probably won’t do much

(Jacquelyn Martin/AP) - President Obama speaks with U.S. troops and their families at the Marine Corps Base in Camp Pendleton, Calif., on August 7.
(Jacquelyn Martin/AP) - President Obama speaks with U.S. troops and their families at the Marine Corps Base in Camp Pendleton, Calif., on August 7.

Conventional wisdom says that until a problem gets addressed from the very top, it doesn't get the attention of an organization.

And it seems President Obama was trying to invoke that idea when he discussed the problem of sexual assault in the military at a visit to Camp Pendleton in California Wednesday. "I want you to hear it directly from me, the commander in chief," Obama said. "It undermines what this military stands for and it undermines what the marine corps stands for when sexual assault takes place within our units. That's why we are going to work together--all of us--to stop these crimes from sexual assault and uphold the honor and the integrity that defines the finest military on earth. That message is coming all the way from the top."

The problem? It probably won't be very effective.

Here's why. Yes, it's a good thing that the president addressed the issue directly. But unspecific talk about the issue (what does "we are all going to work together to stop these crimes" really mean?) and his usual stern-but-cool demeanor did not make the statement very convincing. And call me jaded, but in this instance, explicitly invoking his status as commander in chief sounded more like it was made for the benefit of critics who question his involvement in the problem than for the gathered marines.

Of course, we can't expect mere words from the president to resolve such a longstanding problem. Real change will have to come from Congress and the Pentagon itself--new laws, effective training about sexual abuse, and the cultural willingness of the military's top brass to make common-sense changes to the military justice system.

But the old adage about the power of a message coming from the top has less to do with the words that are spoken than with the actions that are taken. As a piece in Politico Thursday reported, the president "hasn’t formally met with female Democrats who’ve made the issue a priority in Congress" or endorsed their proposals. It also says the White House has made no "commitment to lawmakers and victims groups beyond pressuring military brass behind the scenes." If true, those might be a good place to start.

That's not to say the president shouldn't speak out on the issue. It's just to say he could do it a little more effectively. If he needs a model, he has a perfect one in Lt. Gen. David Morrison, the Australian chief of army who addressed the problem of sexual assault in that country with a video that turned into an Internet sensation for the unblinking, direct and quietly seething emotion he displayed--and for which this problem so clearly calls.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

On sexual assault crisis, the service chiefs look oblivious

Here's how leaders really should be talking about sexual assault in the military

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | August 8, 2013