There are times when being a wonk and a news junkie makes it difficult to evaluate political speeches, and President Obama’s prime-time speech on counterterrorism Sunday night falls into that category. Very little was new in the speech, except the parts that had to be fact-checked afterward:
This doesn’t mean that nothing new could be gleaned. Here are my three takeaways:
1. There are no new counterterrorism ideas. With the exception of a few political proposals that will either go nowhere or not change actual policy, the president evinced a “stay the course” message. If there was a moment for him to roll out any new ideas, this prime-time speech was that moment. But that wasn’t the purpose of the speech. And, indeed, the post-speech commentary stressed the fact that, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan noted:
His critics had failed to voice any substantive alternatives to his previous proposals. When a moderator would ask what the critics would do differently, they had no answer, except for some who thought that repeating the words “radical Islam” while dropping smart bombs would somehow make the war go faster.
Indeed, a close read of what the leading 2016 presidential candidates have said suggests that for all of the overheated rhetoric, the next president won’t do things that much differently in combating the Islamic State. And as one private-sector intelligence analysis notes, the basic problem is that “it is unlikely that any counterterrorism or law enforcement construct that is both feasible and acceptable in a democracy can disrupt plots of exceedingly small size but large impact.”
So Sunday night’s speech wasn’t about what was new. Which leads to the next takeaway …
2. The president is not very good at assuaging the American people in response to terrorist attacks. Vox’s
Ezra Klein Matthew Yglesias wrote something that resonates with everything I’ve heard from the foreign policy people close to Obama:
[T]he core group of real “Obama people” has a surprisingly dovish self-conception, where they see themselves operating in a world in which demands for military intervention are constant and endless — from the media, from congressional Republicans, from foreign governments and their allies in Washington, and from the permanent security bureaucracy itself — but America’s actual ability to engage in non-counterproductive interventions is quite limited.
The Oval Office address represents Obama’s best effort to meet the psychological needs of a frightened nation under attack while sticking on a policy level with a restrained policy that Obama recognizes is emotionally unsatisfying but that he regards as offering the best chance for success.
I concur with Yglesias’s assessment. The problem is that Obama is not meeting the very psychological needs that his team has identified. As Kaplan notes, “Will any of these remarks assuage widespread fears about terrorist attacks in the holiday season and beyond? Probably not. What could he or anyone else have said that might have had that effect? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.”
That’s a curious to draw, however, because the president has given speeches in the past in wake of previous tragedies that have done a lot better on this psychological dimension. His speech after then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot and his eulogy in Charleston, S.C., over the summer were legitimate feats of rhetoric. By comparison, Sunday night’s speech felt anodyne except for his vehemence about not sending ground troops into Syria.
The “why can’t Obama lead?” meme is usually thrown around in situations when the political problem is structural in nature and therefore largely immune to leadership in this partisan age. Last night was not one of those times, however, and the president did not lead.
3. Donald Trump is a horrible live-tweeter. I’m not Trump’s biggest fan, so this tweet made me nervous:
As it turned out, however, the GOP presidential candidate’s live-tweeting was very informative — mostly because it was just so lame and uninspired. He offered up all of two original tweets during the speech, and a few sycophantic retweets from his supporters. This is interesting, because Trump’s skillful use of social media has been one of his advantages in the campaign. His failure to repeat that feat in real time Sunday night suggests that Trump just isn’t all that quick on his feet.
Then, after the speech, Trump offered up these gems:
Once you think of Trump as a richer, crankier and somewhat more fascist version of Andy Rooney, his whole shtick makes more sense.
CORRECTION: This post originally identified the wrong writer of a Vox post. It was Matthew Yglesias, not Ezra Klein.