Instead of dealing forthrightly and personally with the most significant development of his presidency regarding WMDs — the mass killing of civilians through a coordinated military attack — President Obama went on the road to pump up his standing with young voters and sell a flawed tuition plan that no one asked for and no one much liked.

Forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Rami Bleible/Reuters)

The contrast between the urgency of the situation and Obama’s activities was so jarring that it even moved the usually placid White House press corps. Here was the exchange in the press gaggle on Thursday:

 Q: Josh, can we expect to hear from the President at all about the situation in Syria with regards to the reports of chemical weapons?  And was there any pause given at all to whether the optics are good of going on a bus trip today to talk about education when that bloodshed is happening?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me take those as two separate questions.  The first thing I’ll say is the United States is appalled by reports of widespread civilian killings in Syria that were reported just a couple of nights ago.  The images that we’ve seen are nothing short of horrifying.  And that is why the senior administration officials have been in touch with their counterparts around the world to coordinate on our response.  There was some consultation at the United Nations Security Council yesterday.

But what is true today is something that was true yesterday, which is that there is a U.N. chemical weapons investigative team on the ground in Syria right now.  You have an Assad regime that denies responsibility for the use of these chemical weapons.  The easiest way for them to demonstrate that they are on the side of the international community in opposition to the use of chemical weapons is to allow this U.N. team full access to the site to try to get to the bottom of what happened.

That means allowing them to interview witnesses.  That means allowing them to collect physical samples.  And that allows them unfettered access to the region so that they can do their work.  And we renew our call for the Assad regime to do exactly that.

Now, in terms of the bus tour, this is a — seeking a better bargain for the middle class is a top priority of the President’s. It is critical, as you heard Secretary Duncan say, to the long-term success of the United States of America.  And as we’re weighing these domestic policy decisions, and as we’re weighing these foreign policy decisions, the President puts the interest of the United States of America first.

And I think the fact that we are doing this bus tour is an indication that the President has his priorities straight while he continues to monitor what is an increasingly tragic situation in Syria.

There you go — his priorities put a lame tuition plan above mass human rights atrocities and the first mass use of chemical weapons since 1998. The president “monitors” and his staff releases platitudinous statements, but our policy does not change and he does not act.

I won’t revisit how the belief Bashar al-Assad was a “reformer” or our refusal to act in any meaningful way year after year got us into the present dilemma. We are where we are. The administration should cease repeating the very same steps that lead to inaction after the “red line” was crossed months ago. Here is what should be different this time around:

Forget about going to the United Nations. We look feckless and lame asking Russia et. al to give us thumps up on a response.

Stop treating this like a criminal investigation in which we need proof beyond a reasonable doubt to act. That’s a stalling technique.

Get our own intelligence community along with allies to confirm to the best of their knowledge this was a mass chemical weapons attack. (If they can’t do that, how are they supposed to tell when Iran weaponizes its WMDs?)

Gen. Martin Dempsey has obviously been gilding the lily in describing the allegedly insurmountable hurdles to action against Assad. The White House should ask Dempsey to take a second look and-or get a second opinion as did President George W. Bush with regard to the surge. Congress can assess by holding hearings and eliciting expert advice.

Give Assad a deadline to open up to inspectors and to step down. Give a speech explaining why action is necessary. Consult with leaders of both parties on the Hill. If Assad doesn’t comply we have no choice but to respond militarily (hopefully with some allies but if need be alone), not with boots on the grounds but with an appropriately severe air response. Israel has already shown that Syria’s anti-aircraft system is porous.

That is how a serious president responds to an egregious violation of human rights and the snubbing of the United States by Iran’s junior partner. If we had done this months ago there would not have been a mass killing this week. This is a national security crisis, a real one, but Obama acts as if it’s ho-hum, another time for another investigation.

There are, I suspect, people within the administration who are sympathetic to an approach that would not make us passively complicit in war crimes. They should do their best to make the case internally. If the president refuses to do more, the only moral action is to resign. People don’t quit over principle anymore, which is a shame. It’s an effective tool in highlight the folly of an administration that has entirely lost its bearings.

It’s not good enough for aides to go along mutely and later write a memoir explaining how they objected to morally and strategically indefensible actions. Loyalty to an amoral and dangerous administration makes them complicit.

The question for the president and every adviser in the administration is simple: Are “never again” just words?