Why Can’t a Modern President Say, ‘The Only Thing We Have to Fear … ’?

In 1933 the newly inaugurated FDR said, Fear is the enemy. Today’s politicians have a harder time getting that message across. (Wikipedia)

A week ago at this time I was still typing up notes from a two-hour “off-the-record” interview that President Obama held at the White House with several magazine and newspaper writers, including three from The Atlantic: Peter Beinart, Jeffrey Goldberg, and me. I put “off the record” in quotes because things a president says in front of more than two people rarely stay secret very long. Also, part of the White House’s hope was obviously to expose this group to the president’s rationale. And I say “still typing up notes” because attendees were not allowed to bring recording devices other than notepads to the session. (For why it is worth going, despite off-the-record ground rules, see explanation* after the jump.)

Indeed not long after the session, the New York Times ran two articles (one, two) by a reporter not at the session about what Obama said there, and my friend David Ignatius of the WaPo, who was there, did two columns (one, two) reflecting what Obama must be thinking, although not directly attributing anything to him.

In public and in private, Obama likes to say, “I’m a pretty consistent guy.” And he is. In my limited experience, the gap between the cases he makes on- and off-the record is not very large. (Why, then, bother to go off-the-record? For most public figures, it’s for protection against a single phrase or sentence being taken out of context — although ironically, as explained below, exactly that happened to Obama in this case.)

Through his year-end press conferences, speeches, and on-the-record interviews Obama has been doing two things over and over:  (1) stressing the long view, which I’ve been calling the “chessmaster” perspective, on just about any issue, from domestic politics to the range of problems the nation deals with overseas, and (2) wrestling with the balance between seeming adequately aware of the fear generated by terror attacks in Paris or San Bernardino, and not doing the terrorists’ work by hyping that fear.Most of what is on my scrawled-out notepad for last week’s session is consistent with what everyone has heard him say on those two recurring themes.

Today’s update: readers on whether Obama is being strategically accurate, or instead self-deluding, in presenting his chessmaster-style “long view” perspective. Let’s start with an area where he seems most visibly to have failed: the rout of his fellow Democrats from Senate and House seats, plus governorships and state legislatures, during this time in the White House. This message comes from a poli-sci academic whose dissertation is on exactly this topic:

[That Obama’s party is in a weaker position now than in 2008] is a truism that I think runs the risk of being somewhat myopic. The Democratic Party is pretty clearly in a more vulnerable place now than it was eight years ago, though I’m not convinced this should be characterized as weaker.

For decades now Dems have been awaiting their “emerging majority,” based on a tipping point in the nation’s demographics. Obama’s personalistic appeal and organizational sophistication helped speed this process along-at least as a presidential coalition on his behalf. The downside is that it made the Democrats more dependent on a coalition of irregular voters, and likely caused a counter-reaction of further consolidation of older, whiter, yet more consistent voters within the GOP.


As a result, Democrats have been boxed into a broader if more shallow coalition. A lot of veteran pols and operatives (that the media depend on for their narrative on this stuff as there is not tremendous interest in the nuts and bolts of party building by journalists) have expressed frustration over this…. That being said however, few would disagree that the long-term fate of the party rests with Obama’s coalition.


I suppose a case could be made that a slower transition that did not make the party brand quite as toxic toward certain high turnout segments  of the population would have bolstered Democratic short term electoral fortunes- especially in off year elections. But it should be remembered that since the 60’s, the Party’s struggles to maintain its non-white and more liberal factions, along with the white working class, has put it in a consistently tenuous position.


I think there is something to be said for ripping the scab off now, once this coalition could be established on a presidential level, and engaging in the difficult (and likely at times electorally painful) process of consolidating this coalition. This seems especially true given the scope of problems the country faces, and the intransigence of the opposition, likely means that  it will  take large Democratic majorities to pass meaningful legislation on issues like economic inequality, climate change, etc.



Another reader with a different explanation of the party’s weakness:

Someone well to my left told me years ago that he thought Barack Obama was several moves ahead of everybody else on the chessboard. I do tend to agree….


The criticism is fair that the Democratic party is worse off politically than it was when he took office, but is that his fault or the result of too many Democrats who are cowardly and feckless? I’ll cite Senators Mark Udall and Mary Landrieu–oh, that’s right, they were defeated in 2014 after running away from Obama and begging him not to issue an executive order on immigration. How about the Democrats who ran away from health care reform in 2010?


Perhaps it was best expressed by that great philosopher, Stanley Laurel, who said, “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.”

And another reader arguing that the weakness is illusory:

It has fascinated me that most of the country has moved very far left since early 2012. It’s been hard to quantify. Maybe I was too young to truly remember what life was like before Obama (I am 25) but I feel like some major changes have happened since the 2012 election cycle.


Occupy Wall Street did not have any clear and immediate victories except perhaps how the 2016 election will discuss income inequality in a way no one would have imagined in 2008. The vocabulary of feminism is completely mainstream. The only real arguments remaining against the ACA are that maybe we need to consider single payer.


Cell phone video has brought the Rodney King anger mainstream. Marriage equality happened almost over night as Americans slowly realized their friends, neighbors and familes were gay.Over-incarceration and drug legalization are now things politicians can speak about. Less politically, Americans now define their eating habits more at Whole Foods, Chipotle and other more “conscious” establishments.


While a good 30% of the country is stubborn and angry, Obama’s re-election leads and reflects that a good portion of the rest of the country is actually ready to live up to the ideals our country was founded on.

These points are obviously related to the arguments that David Frum lays out about the Republicans and Peter Beinart about the Democrats in our new issue. (Subscribe! It’s the perfect gift.)

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In the Christmas Eve spirit of boundless giving, here is one more assessment. This one bears on the climate of fear / loss / resentment that has played such a part in Trump’s rise, and that Obama has struggled to deal with on both the substantive and the “messaging” levels:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Trump/GOP America is not afraid. I think we do ourselves a disservice to credit them with actual fear. And it causes us to misunderstand the challenge we face.


GOP America is afraid of Muslims in the way the Klan and mobs of 20s feared blacks and drinkers and Catholics. Islamic terrorism gives people permission to assert dominance over one of the smallest, weakest groups of in our country — and fancy themselves bravely standing up for good by shitting on people.


It’s a win all the way around. It feels good. Lynchers thought themselves carrying out a noble, hard duty. And they took joy in it. The sentiments on display at the debate are precisely the same. GOP voters eat it up because it feels good. They’re not looking for reassurance. They’re demanding indulgence.


This follows up on the social permission that electing Barack Obama gave many Americans to indulge racist instincts and bile they long hid. Can’t be racist, I live in Barack Obama’s America. Inoculation and permission.


I saw this quote in a story about what Americans fear:


“I am very careful taking my small children into large crowds or celebrations – particularly those celebrations of our faith,” said one mother.”


This is obviously horseshit. And even if it’s not, it might as well be. The line between honest delusion and indulgent drama barely exists.


The point of this is that we won’t convince people not to act on the permission that their bullshit “fear” gives them. We have to revoke the permission to enjoy how this makes them feel. And that takes confrontation, not reassurance. We just have to beat them.


That’s our challenge.  

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* Rules-of-journalism dept: Why, and when, is it worth accepting “off the record” strictures?

Sometimes that makes no sense, and a reporter will say to a source: talk with me on the record, or not at all. In other circumstances, there are things you learn this way that you couldn’t if participants thought that anything they said might be isolated for publication. When it comes to an incumbent president, unless you’re pursuing an active Watergate-style investigation and need on-the-record answers about specific allegations, the chance to someone explain and defend his views in fairly open conversation is presumptively worth taking.

As mentioned earlier, the main thing the White House would hope to gain in specifying “off the record,” that a single phrase or sentence wouldn’t be captured out of context, nonetheless happened this time. Someone relayed the news that the president said he “didn’t watch” or “didn’t watch enough” cable TV news to internalize the widespread panic after the San Bernardino shootings. This became another standalone gaffe. In context it was part of Obama’s discussion of the difficulty of weighing risks rationally, but that in-context version remains off the record. The leaked one-sentence version went public and became another “gaffe.”

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Christmas Eve greetings to all so inclined, and appropriate holiday wishes in general.

Obama’s Leadership Tone: Chessmaster, Pawn, or Something Else Altogether?

Our March, 2012 cover

Through the past ten days in this space, I’ve had several items on the style and logic of President Obama’s leadership style. First, one on the ISIS speech, which I found very strong in logic but perhaps too coldly  logical in affect. Then readers chiming with similar views. Finally, after announcement of the Paris climate deal, an argument that evidence on the timeless “chessmaster? or pawn?” question about Obama’s effectiveness was swinging toward the former.

Now, readers pro and con. I’m kicking off a new Thread on this theme, because a lot of response has come in, and I’ll try to break it up into related installments.

Let’s start with discussions of why 14 (horrible) deaths in San Bernardino can seem an “existential” threat, when the 60 to 80 other Americans killed with guns that day don’t — and whether there is something more, something different, that a logician-leader like Obama could have done to address that fear.

A psychologist on the West Coast, on why the fear of terrorism is so powerful, including relentless hyping by the news media:

Off the top of my head I’m having trouble thinking of any attempts to dig a little deeper into the question of the “enabling” role of the media. Yes, politicians – some eagerly, others more reluctantly – are much more likely to bloviate about “terrorist” attacks which are motivated by an allegiance to some foreign conspiracy. And yes, for those media and individual journalists who are looking for ways to make a quick buck it’s much easier and more lucrative to let yourself be used by politicians as an outlet than to do the hard work of digging into complicated subject. But that still begs the question of why these things are so.


From my own professional perspective, I’d guess that  the reason that there’s always a market for the pols and media to pander to in this way is that focusing on an identifiable and theoretically circumscribable threat provides a measure of psychological comfort that you won’t get if you look at the data objectively and conclude that at a certain number of these terrible attacks are not going to be preventable.


Putting it slightly differently, believing that the problem is one of foreign-inspired fanatics who “hate us because of who we are” is a kind of mass delusion in which many people, assisted by their enablers in the media and the political world, find a tenuous, illusory feeling of safety that they otherwise wouldn’t get. As in the Woody Allen joke about the guy whose brother thinks he’s a chicken, we all need the eggs….


There’s a parallel with psychologist Jon Haidt’s contribution to the “Coddling of the American Mind” article (that avoidance just feeds the fear). With respect to the fear of terrorist attacks what’s being avoided is the potentially overwhelming “fear itself” from not being able to circumscribe and, hopefully, destroy your enemy. It’s an ancient problem – 240 years ago the not-quite-U.S. was on the other side of it.

After the jump, two former Senate staffers with different assessments of the ISIS speech.

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Charles Stevenson of SAIS, long-time Senate staffer and former National War College professor, is among those thinking that Obama’s tone in the ISIS speech was too flat:

The logic of the Dec 6 speech was impeccable, but he wasn’t persuasive. This article from Defense One makes the same point about Monday’s talk at the Pentagon [the day after the televised address from the Oval Office]. I think Obama fell short in the Oval Office address because he spoke of more of the SAME, rather than MORE of the same. He should have stressed what he would do and less what he wouldn’t.He did a better job of that at the Pentagon.


I hope the journalists following the Republican candidates force them to be specific on what they would do, what they wouldn’t do, and especially how they could guarantee a large Sunni ground force against ISIL.

But Mike Lofgren, who worked for many years for Republicans in the Senate (Stevenson worked for Democrats) says there is nothing Obama could have said that would have slaked the thirst for a “strong” stand:

Critiques of Obama’s rhetorical style are irrelevant side issues; the fact that people make them shows they are lurching around in vain for a panacea. The president could be Pericles of Athens and he could not make a dent in public opinion if he was arguing for restraint, patience, and a sense of proportion.


People who habitually invoke FDR have no conception of how fundamentally the cultural landscape has changed. A large percentage of the public did not know FDR couldn’t walk, an ignorance abetted by a press which carefully shielded the public from any photos or descriptions of his disability. Would that be conceivable today? And the entire universe of Americans’ relationship to governmental authority has been fundamentally altered, particularly over the last three decades.


The Far Right’s assiduous institution building, including a vast media echo chamber, means there are tens of millions of Americans in a subculture that is operant-conditioned to be instinctively opposed to whatever a president or other authority figure says, unless he or she is a conservative Republican. By means of its relentlessness practice of “working the refs,” right-wing media have also “rewired” the mainstream media to be receptive to right-wing themes and concerns, and to self-censor out of fears of bias.


I began to perceive as long ago as the 1990s that many mainstream publications regarded Matt Drudge as their assignment editor. This clearly has an effect on the kind of news that Americans who are not in the right-wing echo chamber consume, and how they perceive Obama. (Ron Fournier of National Journal is a classic example of this syndrome. His leitmotiv is “Obama is a dictator; why won’t he lead?”)


For those reasons and more, there is simply nothing a Democratic president can say. The far more profound issue than the incumbent president’s rhetorical abilities is the headlong rush of a significant chunk of the American public into fascism (I suppose in the last two weeks it’s finally permissible to use the f-word).

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Update in the same vein as Lofgren’s, this note from a current U.S. diplomat:

Few things infuriate me more than the Fournier-esque comments on Obama’s ISIS speech provided by your recent East Coast defense policy commenter [in this post].  The reader acknowledges that he “fully agrees with Obama’s approach as a matter of substance.”  He then argues, however, that because Obama has failed to “lead,” by which he appears to mean he has not taken some additional, unspecified action (presumably punitive against Muslims), he has ceded the mantle of leadership to Trump, Cruz, et al.


This is, of course, absurd.  Leadership is not about busy work and bluster.  It’s not about latching onto the first policy idea that sounds reassuring and presenting it in overblown terms in order to show you’re tough.  We tried that in Iraq; how’d that work out?  Real leadership, not the Hollywood version, is about having the courage of your convictions and willingness to see plans through over the long term.


The commenter is on stronger ground when he critiques Obama’s rather cold, intellectual style.  Obama and Bill Clinton present an interesting contrast in this regard.


But again, I have to push back on the idea that the most fundamental task of a leader is to empathize with the citizenry.  Certainly, a leader should understand the concerns and fears of the people, but a smart leader shapes and focuses those fears and concerns.  And Obama is absolutely right to channel the focus of our fears away from Islam as a religion and towards those strains and sects that preach violence and hatred.  He is right on the merits: our battle is only with a small faction within the Muslim community.  And he right because treating this as a battle between Islam and the West plays directly into the hands of those who would do us harm.


Finally, a brief comment on the current national mood.  I’m in my mid-forties and remember well the terrorist incidents of the 1980s – the bombing of the US Embassy and the Marine Barracks in Beirut, the bombing of the US Embassy in Kuwait, the kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley, the high jacking of Kuwait Airlines Flight 221, the high jacking of TWA Flight 847, the high jacking of the Achille Lauro, the bombing of the Rome and Vienna airports, the bombing of the La Belle disco in West Berlin, and the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.  It’s quite a list.  While these incidents engendered a great deal of fear and concern at the time, they provoked little, if any, of the broader hysteria we are witnessing today.  


I think the primary explanation for the divergent attitudes of the American public is the 24-hour cable (and internet) news cycle and an opposition party (with its own supporting media/internet apparatus) that will use anything to whip up public sentiment against the incumbent President.  Fortunately, at this point, I believe that the fear of ISIS will recede as the panic over Ebola did last year.  The flip-side of the intensity of the current media environment is its short attention span.

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More to come, including some age-20s-something listeners to Obama’s speech heard its logic and themes, and whether the Obama era has really left the national Democratic party in as weak a condition as it seems.

Obama the Analyst


Sunday evening’s speech about terrorism distilled what people like, and don’t, about President Obama’s leadership style. I liked the logic he laid out and the realities he tried to convey. But I understand that the aspects I found most impressive will seem the biggest weaknesses to some other people.

From my point of view, the crucial fact about the speech is that Obama understands how terrorism works, and how its effects can best be minimized and blunted.

Note “minimize,” rather than eliminate. There are evils and forms of damage that societies can reduce, without imagining that they can be brought to zero. In the 50 years since Unsafe at Any Speed and the 35 years since the debut of MADD, traffic death rates have gone way down. But still nearly 100 Americans die each day in crashes. In the 50+ years since the Surgeon General’s report, smoking rates have gone way down. But every day, nearly 500 Americans die of lung cancer. Similarly societies work to drive down the rates of murder, domestic violence, and other evils, knowing they can’t fully eliminate them.

The same is true of terrorism. No society, not even a fully totalitarian state, can guarantee that all its members will always be safe against a renegade bomber, shooter, knifer, etc. Protection and resilience, yes. Perfect safety, no. In any society, some terrorist attacks will succeed, and people and leaders need to steel themselves to that fact, and decide in advance how they will react to inevitable failures and outrages , so as to avoid vastly magnifying the terrorists’ effects.

* * *

This distinction matters because of the fundamental logic of terrorism. The damage attackers do is never through the initial attack itself. That is true even for attacks as profoundly damaging as those on 9/11, or as brutally inhuman as the most recent ones in Paris or San Bernardino. The attacks themselves, even the most grievous, are the feint.

The gravest damage always comes from the response they evoke, from what the target society does to itself  when attacked. The United States lost thousands of its own (and other countries’) people, and hundreds of billions of dollars, on 9/11. It lost incomparably more—in lives, treasure, values and integrity, long-term strategic harm—through the self-inflicted damage of deciding to invade Iraq. Thus the goal of an attack is only incidentally to kill. Its real ambition is to terrorize—to provoke, to disorient, to tempt a society or government to lose sight of its long-term values and interests. (The most famous example is the way the assassination of two people, in Sarajevo, ended up triggering a war in which great empires came to their end and tens of millions of people died.)

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie just before the assassination in Sarajevo that eventually led to World War I. (Wikipedia)

You can read the full-length version of this argument in a cover story I did nearly 10 years ago. It’s a logic that is fully accepted, even obvious, within the anti-terrorist world. And the logic is embedded in what Obama said just now. For instance (emphasis added):

We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq, but they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.

In other words, the United States does its best to prevent these horrible attacks. But when it fails, as sooner or later any society will, it should be brave and sane enough not to compound the problem by going crazy.

* * *

Obama’s lucidity about confronting an evil, and working strategically against it without taking its bait, is something I greatly respect in him. But this same bloodless-seeming logic is the trait that led to the post-speech complaints about his coldness, his dispassion, his inability to offer something new. If you like him, you see his self-possession as a sign of temperamental maturity. If you don’t, you see one more sign of his “weakness” and “failure.” I don’t know whether Obama might sound different if he had to run again. I’m guessing not; this is his nature. (Update: See Matt Yglesias on a similar theme. Also see this informative Tweet-stream by Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times, and this assessment by Fred Kaplan of Slate. I had not seen any of these when writing my item and am glad to see that we’re making complementary points. Michael Tomasky also makes good points about the different audiences the president was addressing, and about the importance of his challenge to Muslim Americans to speak up more actively on the anti-ISIS front.)

I recognize that, for all of Obama’s rhetorical gifts in certain situations (for instance, his “Amazing Grace” speech after the Charleston massacre), he may not be the ideal messenger for this message of strength-through-reserve. Some hypothesized other leader—maybe FDR? maybe Lincoln?—might be able to sound fierce and passionate and resolute—“strong,” in the language of the cable-TV commentators—even while presenting policies as disciplined as Obama’s. To put it another way, Obama’s real message boils down to: Our plan isn’t very good, but it’s the least-damaging one available. He presented that as a grim, logical reality. Maybe someone else could make it sound uplifting. Maybe.

But if I have to choose between a leader who follows the sane course, though sounding grim about it, and a leader who sounds peppier while rolling the dice on policy, I’ll take the first. That was the man we heard tonight. Since politics and leadership are only partly about logic, others will choose otherwise.

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Two extra points.

Congressional accountability. President Obama made the following point almost in passing, but it is of fundamental importance:

Finally, if Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists. For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of air strikes against ISIL targets. I think it’s time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united and committed to this fight.

As a matter of small-r republican virtues, the United States now has the worst of all worlds: members of Congress either calling for, or warning against, military actions, without putting themselves on the line with a vote. There is no way to force Congress to face an issue it wants to avoid. But at least reporters could press the main presidential candidates to say how they would vote (and ask the Senators why they’re not advocating one).

Stagecraft: The podium-in-front-of-a-desk staging for the speech was flat-out bizarre. Mercifully, the camera’s framing soon closed in to make it look as if it were an ordinary podium speech. But in the initial wide shot, and in photos like the one at the top of this post, you had two visually familiar elements—the Oval Office itself with its iconic Resolute desk, and the presidential-seal lectern—combined into a weird centaur- or turducken-style hybrid.

I can understand the president’s preference to speak while standing rather than seated, and also his desire to speak from the Oval Office. But this was a compromise solution that I am confident we will never see duplicated. This doesn’t “matter” in any substantive sense, but it was a noticeable enough departure from past practice to bear mentioning.