Consider this a companion piece to the one below:
President Obama’s admirers—who include most of the press corps, the Nobel committee and President Obama—believe above all in the power of his oratory: A “major speech,” in Philadelphia, Tucson or Cairo, can always calm troubled political waters. Which makes the silence of this wordiest of Presidents all the more unusual and dangerous amid the political uproar over National Security Agency antiterror surveillance.
In the 11 days since the story broke, Mr. Obama has offered only one brief and elliptical defense of the NSA programs. “I welcome this debate,” he said, adding that “We’ll have a chance to talk further during the course of the next couple days.”
Mr. Obama went on to spend the next couple days avoiding the debate he said he welcomed. Between fund-raising appearances in Miami Beach and Santa Monica, he squeezed in an event welcoming the women’s professional basketball championship team to the White House, an Ed Markey for Senate rally in Boston, and a celebration for gay pride month. The core national-security obligations of the Presidency? Nada.
With Mr. Obama’s face on the surveillance milk carton, the case for data-mining and digital eavesdropping has fallen to NSA chief Keith Alexander and the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper continued his pattern of doing more harm than good with his line about answering congressional questions in “the most truthful or least most untruthful manner,” which helps to explain why people are skeptical of U.S. spooks.
If Mr. Obama wants to maintain public support for the U.S. antiterror architecture he inherited and has robustly used, he is going to have to publicly defend it in the context of American interests and values. Without such a defense, the political vacuum will be filled by speculation and demagoguery as it has been for nearly two weeks.
As a Senator, Mr. Obama might have joined the demagogues. Yet as President he has largely erred on the side of keeping the country safe, which confirms the truism that the world looks different from the Oval Office than from an Iowa fairground. He has bombed terrorists to death by the hundreds even as his rhetoric continues to suggest that he has saved the nation from George W. Bush’s antiterror tyranny. This contradiction between his talk and action is now undermining support for Mr. Obama’s powers.
All of this follows an unfortunate national-security pattern: Mr. Obama ramped up the Afghan campaign while undercutting the counter-insurgency strategy from the start, and he barely spoke of it again except to trumpet withdrawal. He threw in with the Europe-led Libya coalition at the last second, only to abdicate once Gadhafi fell and to the point that a U.S. Ambassador was murdered without consequence.
Last month he all but declared the war on terror wrapped up. And then last Thursday he left the explanation for his abrupt change of heart to (lightly) arm the Syrian rebels to his deputy national security adviser.
When the going gets tough, the tough go to Germany and give a speech (another one!) in front of the Brandenburg gate.
I don’t want to say that President Obama is a narcissist, but if he were any more in love with himself, he’d have to leave Michelle to be with his “soul mate”.