The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Obama’s biggest leadership failure

The president has failed to use the bully pulpit to ease American fears.

President Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office on fears of terrorism on Dec. 6, 2015. He didn’t do a very good job. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
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Yesterday, I was pretty critical of the GOP candidates for president on their foreign policy pronouncements. But Vox’s Matthew Yglesias suggests out something even more depressing — that the debate helped Donald Trump’s front-runner status. Why?

Establishment Republicans expressed early hope after the terrorist attack in Paris that the return of national security as a first-tier political issue would help pop the Trump bubble….
It didn’t happen — at all. Instead, the increased focus on security only helped Trump. He had branded himself through years of birtherism and anti-immigrant demagoguery as the candidate of xenophobia. The threat of terrorism set a process of “ethnic outbidding” into motion that Trump was perfectly positioned to win.
The entire tenor of the debate — almost obsessively focused on ISIS to the exclusion of all other issues — played perfectly into the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that has boosted Trump.

Now there’s been a lot of loose talk about how Trump is simply exploiting some of the less savory elements of GOP voters — but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Indeed, it suppresses Barack Obama’s biggest foreign policy failing: his failure to make Americans feel safer.

There’s a substantive reason for Obama’s failure. As I noted a few days ago, Obama’s grand strategy de-emphasizes terrorism and the Middle East as threats in relation to the rise of China and climate change. Obviously, most Republicans disagree with that set of priorities, and as they say in this town, reasonable people can disagree about that set of priorities.

Obama’s greater problem is that he has failed to convince Americans that the threat of terrorism has been wildly overhyped. His speech 10 days ago about the Paris and San Bernadino attacks was thoroughly uninspired. Even if one agrees with his policies, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm about them.

President Obama addressed the attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and overseas from the Oval Office. (Video: Associated Press)

There’s a lot of political science that pooh-poohs the role of the bully pulpit. On matters like passing legislation, that skepticism makes sense. But Obama’s terrorism speech wasn’t about legislation, it was about communicating reassurance to the American people. Which he abjectly failed to do.

Consider two polls that came out this week. The first is from NBC/Wall Street Journal:

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., have vaulted terrorism and national security to become the American public’s top concern, and they’ve helped drive President Barack Obama’s job rating to 43 percent — its lowest level in more than a year, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
“For most of 2015, the country’s mood, and thus the presidential election, was defined by anger and the unevenness of the economic recovery,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates, which conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies. “Now that has abruptly changed to fear.”

And then there’s Pew Research:

The latest national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted Dec. 8-13 among 1,500 adults, finds that since the start of this year, the share of Americans who say the government is doing well in reducing the threat of terrorism has fallen by 26 percentage points – from 72% to 46% – and now stands at its lowest point in the post-9/11 era.
Approval of the way Barack Obama is handling the threat of terrorism also has declined, even as his overall job rating (currently 46%) – and his ratings on immigration, the economy and other issues – is little changed. Just 37% approve of the way Obama is handling terrorism while 57% disapprove, the lowest rating of his presidency for this issue.
Terrorism has reshaped the public’s agenda, both at home and abroad. Currently, 29% cite terrorism (18%), national security (8%) or ISIS (7%) as the most important problem facing the country today. One year ago, just 4% of the public cited any of these issues.

Most political scientists and pollsters believe that this concern about terrorism and national security will abate. And if there are no further San Bernadinos, that’s possible. But I do wonder if there’s a feedback loop going on between public anxieties, candidates hyping fear, and the lack of economic troubles to distract either voters or candidates to other issue areas.

It’s on Republicans when they make stupid or incorrect pronouncements about foreign policy and counterterrorism. But the GOP is responding to public anxiety. And that anxiety, and the failure to alleviate it, is currently on the president.