For generations, the American people have had a standing deal with their Presidents: Go ahead and mess with the prime-time lineup once in a while, interrupt Who’s the Boss, Seinfeld, NCIS: Los Angeles, or whatever. But you better make it count. You better have something new to say. And when it comes to speeches of national security, you better leave the impression that you have this thing under control.
On Tuesday night, President Obama decided to test this unspoken pact. For 16 minutes from the East Room, he took over the nation’s televisions to repeat the same complex and contradictory case for bombing Syria that he has been making for two weeks, even though he acknowledged at the end, there is no longer an imminent need for the country to make a decision. He delayed the start of America’s Got Talent to announce he would be delaying a congressional vote.
It was a fitting turn of events, given the way the Syria crisis has played out over the past month. Three times now, Obama has been forced to announce a major pivot in his Syria policy, as he has been tossed about by global events and his own shifting judgments. First, his staff announced that the country was moving to war footing, days after a terrible chemical-weapons attack in Syria. Then, on the eve of an attack, Obama announced that he had decided this war was not one he should start alone. Finally Tuesday, on the eve of forcing a vote from Congress over that war, he announced no vote would be needed anytime soon, given diplomatic maneuverings by Vladimir Putin.
(MORE: Watch Obama’s Syria Speech)
Almost as soon as the President started to speak, his staff was playing defense on Twitter, pushing back against journalistic insta-reactions that judged the speech as a rehash of old talking points. “Presidents don’t ask for time to address columnists who follow every minute of the news,” wrote White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer in one tweet. “It’s for the public that doesn’t.”
To date, that task of winning over the low-attention-span public has not been going well. Over the past week, American opinion has hardened against the strike, by a rough margin of 2 to 1. And Obama has found himself hampered by rationales that are so nuanced as to appear impenetrable to someone not paying careful attention.
The problems were on display once again in prime time. He said he would not launch a “pinprick strike in Syria,” just before he described what he did want: A “limited strike” that would “send a message.” He evoked in graphic detail the humanitarian horror of children dying from chemical weapons, just after saying “we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war,” which has killed and will likely continue to kill thousands of children with regular bullets and bombs. “I’ve spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them,” he said, in a speech about starting a new one.
At the core of Obama’s argument is a noble and simple goal: to maintain the global prohibition on the use of weapons of mass destruction. But that goal depends on an international resolve that has been lacking, and on an American President who can marshal enormous forces against violators. Citing other noble and simple goals, Obama has declined to play that role so far. He holds on to the idea that his own powers to decide should be limited, and that his powers of reason can persuade a war-weary world to do what it doesn’t want to do.
So rather than tell the country how it is, with all the pomp and power of his office, he chose to ask the nation’s favor. Instead of an Oval Office address, from the seat of American power, he spoke in front of a giant red carpet in the main hall of the White House, a decorative room that he had to traverse alone twice, in long awkward walks to and from the camera. “I believe we should act,” he said at the end of his speech. Not “We must act.” Or “Now is the time to act.” Just, he believes.
Instead of asking the American people directly to support his decision, he asked the American people to engage in complex puzzlers after viewing videos of the chemical attacks online. “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?” he said, a question that even foreign policy experts would be hard pressed to answer with any accuracy. It has certainly happened before — in 1988 when Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds — with ambiguous international consequences that remain the subject of much debate.
From the beginning of his rise to national office, the rap on Obama has been, for good and ill, that there is no binary choice he does not want to find a way to transcend. That transcendence, the idea that he could unite the country, got him elected President the first time, and it has helped steer him through a number of delicate foreign policy decisions, from Afghanistan, where he surged troops while announcing withdrawal dates, to the Arab Spring, where he supported democracy in some countries more than others.
But the problem of Syria may be showing the limit of this instinct. He wants to launch military strikes in retribution for the death of some innocent children and not others. He wants Congress to approve his action even though he may still act alone. He wants to maintain a war footing even as a new diplomatic solution appears on the horizon. They are all intellectually defensible positions. But it may just be that the people who tuned in Tuesday night, between the first and second hours of So You Think You Can Dance, were looking for a President to lead the country, not a man hoping to reason with it.