Shadow Government

President Obama Should Have Given Senator Ben Sasse’s Speech

The junior senator from Nebraska gave the defense that the president failed to.

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President Obama’s Oval Office Address to the Nation on Sunday night was a disappointment in many ways. Above all, it was a missed opportunity. This is a wartime president who visibly struggles with the role of being a wartime commander-in-chief, and who is remarkably reluctant to speak to Americans candidly about the wars he is leading on their behalf. He rarely uses his bully pulpit to rally Americans to support the wars, and when he does, he often misfires.

It was disappointing that he did not announce that he was fundamentally reviewing his strategy, which is clearly not succeeding on an acceptable timetable. It was disappointing that he did not speak honestly about how he has misjudged the situation in the Middle East, particularly the importance of sustaining the success in Iraq that he inherited in 2009 and that he boasted about in 2011. It was disappointing that he did not discuss how far his policy has actually shifted from the one he was defending until mid-2014 — the one that helped catalyze the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. As John Hannah argues, a case could be made that Obama has tacitly vindicated the earlier critiques of his policy by adopting many of the recommendations of his critics — albeit without leveling with the American people that that is what he is doing.

But if, as a policy matter, he had already decided that he was not going to use the moment to come clean about the failures of his overall approach to the region and make an actual policy change, and instead was simply going to try to rally the public to a more reassuring vision of how to conduct ourselves in the midst of the war, then it is especially disappointing that he did not give a speech that had a chance of actually doing that.

Let’s be clear, while the Obama administration has made some hopeful steps of reform, it still has a policy problem with its halting war strategy — one that cannot be wiped away with clever rhetoric. But the administration also has a communications problem, an inability to talk about the war in a way that simultaneously reassures Americans that the president understands the threat and the stakes and also exhorts Americans not to panic or make the problem worse, as some are wont to do.

If the president is unwilling or unable to address the policy problem, at least he could have made some progress on the communications problem. As Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has shown in this brief set of remarks it is possible to thread the rhetorical needle. It is possible to remind Americans about the threat and the stakes while also calling Americans to respect freedom of religion and not demonize Muslims while also not trivializing religious differences with sloppy theological pabulum.

I am pretty sure that if President Obama had delivered these remarks instead of the ones he actually delivered he would have connected better with the American people. Yes, he still would get criticized by the experts who recognize a policy failure when they see one, but those same experts would likely have given him credit for fulfilling his other role as explainer-in-chief.

If a junior senator can give that speech, why can’t the President of the United States?

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Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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