The Obama administration’s decision to have the president announce his plans on the Afghan drawdown at the White House – instead of, say, before troops – may be a good way for it to hedge its bets.
Whenever the president delivers a major national security address, particularly one on the deployment or recall of U.S. troops, the stagecraft of the moment matters. When President Obama announced a year and a half ago that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he did it with a grand address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. And when he announced the drawdown in Iraq a few months later, he did it with his first Oval Office address.
The choice of venue this time, though, might be trickier than in the past.
An announcement that he’s pulling out troops before an audience of servicemembers might risk drawing cheers – and after this, presidents know better than to start the celebration early. An announcement in the Oval Office — which the White House has said will not be used for the address — risks signaling that his decision marks a landmark moment in his presidency, despite his administration’s insistence that it’s nothing more than the implementation of a decision Obama made way back in 2009.
Meantime, with rising calls on Capitol Hill for a major shift in strategy, an address at the Capitol would have been a non-starter.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, suggested that the White House is far from the perfect venue for Obama, who has always thrived on large crowds and who, when behind a podium, can come off as professorial.
At the same time, he said, there are advantages to picking the White House.
“There’s something more contained about doing it this way,” Zeiler said. “This way they know the atmosphere. It may not be exciting, but it’s certainly presidential.”
Obama has delivered far fewer addresses to the nation than his immediate predecessors. He’s had only four so far. Through June 22 of their third year in office, George W. Bush had delivered 11, Bill Clinton nine and George H.W. Bush nine, according to data compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on White House communications operations. (Those figures exclude State of the Union addresses and other messages delivered to joint sessions of Congress.) Only two of Obama’s addresses have been from the Oval Office.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek said that, without question, White House officials give the choice of venue significant thought when it comes to major addresses. He noted that, when Lyndon Johnson announced the deployment of tens of thousands of more ground troops to Vietnam in 1965, he did so at a press conference, with little fanfare, because he wanted to mute the impact.
The point, Dallek said, is that the choice of a presidential venue is important. “I think it does have an impact on the way the president and the public view it,” he said.
It has not always been so easy to quickly set up addresses to the nation from the White House. It wasn’t until the Clinton administration that the White House got a technological overhaul, with the installation of new fiberoptic cables.
Now that the building is fully wired, though, it can offer a backdrop like no other. And for that reason alone, it might make sense for tonight’s announcement.
“The advantage is that you’re showing he’s president and that he’s making decisions,” said Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University. “It kind of reinforces his image as a decisionmaker in this area.”