At a press conference Monday in Antalya, Turkey, President Obama fielded this question from CNN’s Jim Acosta:
This [ISIS] is an organization that you once described as a JV team that evolved into a force that has now occupied territory in Iraq and Syria and is now able to use that safe haven to launch attacks in other parts of the world. How is that not underestimating their capabilities? And how is that contained, quite frankly? And I think a lot of Americans have this frustration that they see that the United States has the greatest military in the world, it has the backing of nearly every other country in the world when it comes to taking on ISIS. I guess the question is — and if you’ll forgive the language — is why can’t we take out these bastards?
“The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah last night elbowed Acosta for the inquiry. “I’m glad you apologized for that potty mouth of yours,” said Noah, spitting at the notion that anyone need apologize in advance for using the word “bastards.” But Noah had a more substantive critique: “Luckily the president answered the question as if it had come from an adult,” said the host.
For the record, President Obama responded to Acosta by holding his ground. “We are going to continue to pursue the strategy that has the best chance of working,” said the president, “even though it does not offer the satisfaction, I guess, of a neat headline or an immediate resolution.”
Noah and his “Daily Show” missed the action on this press conference. The money angle lay not in ridiculing Acosta, though “The Daily Show” has a great tradition of mocking CNN personalities. It lay, rather, in exploring the overlap in questions among various reporters at that event. Consider for a second that Obama started out the press conference with a statement indicating that he wouldn’t waver from the existing approach to degrading and destroying the Islamic State: “And so while we are very clear-eyed about the very, very difficult road still head, the United States, in partnership with our coalition, is going to remain relentless on all fronts — military, humanitarian and diplomatic. We have the right strategy, and we’re going to see it through,” he said.
At which point five straight reporters asked the president, in effect: Really?
Jerome Cartillier of Agence France-Presse: “The equation has clearly changed. Isn’t it time for your strategy to change?” Obama responded with an in-depth answer that spans 11 beefy paragraphs (822 words) in the transcript. “So there will be an intensification of the strategy that we put forward, but the strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work,” said Obama, in part.
When he finished, Margaret Brennan of CBS News asked, “Have you underestimated their abilities? And will you widen the rules of engagement for U.S. forces to take more aggressive action?” Again the president went back to his themes: “And so our goals here consistently have to be to be aggressive, and to leave no stone unturned, but also recognize this is not conventional warfare. We play into the ISIL narrative when we act as if they’re a state, and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state. That’s not what’s going on here.”
Jim Avila of ABC News then asked about intelligence regarding the Paris attacks and whether critics are right to aver that “your preference of diplomacy over using the military makes the United States weaker and emboldens our enemies.” On that latter point, Obama said, “to some degree I answered the question earlier.”
Then came Acosta, asking essentially the same question that Brennan asked.
The routine wasn’t over, as Ron Allen of NBC News gave it a try: “Do you think that given all you’ve learned about ISIS over the past year or so, and given all the criticism about your underestimating them, do you think you really understand this enemy well enough to defeat them and to protect the homeland?”
Obama appeared flabbergasted: “All right, so this is another variation on the same question. And I guess — let me try it one last time.” He then went on to talk about the Islamic State’s unique ability to hold territory from which to draw recruits and to light up social media.
People ripped the president for his performance. Bill Hemmer, a straight-news morning anchor for Fox News, delivered an impassioned denunciation of the appearance:
If you were waiting to hear a U.S. president say “I feel your pain,” or if you were waiting to hear a U.S. president say “it’s them or us,” that is not what you just heard. President Obama called the attacks here in Paris a setback at one point. He was asked “is it time for you to change your strategy?” More or less, he said no. “Have you underestimated the abilities of ISIS?” More or less, he said no. “Do you understand how to defeat ISIS?” His response, “this is a variation of the same question.”
We’ve seen question uniformity before from the White House press corps, like the time that six of the seven organizations in the front row of the White House briefing room asked the same thing of then-press secretary Jay Carney. Generally it’s an empty and unproductive exercise.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, which claimed the lives of at least 129 and wounded hundreds, the reporters’ broken-record questions may have provided a public service. Through his frustration with the repeated themes, Obama did provide a bit more detail, a bit more thought, after each question. And really — what other topic were reporters going to ask about? In any case, this matter — and not Acosta’s use of language — was the media story for “The Daily Show.” It whiffed.