I still remember a lot of people telling me in 2006 that George W. Bush was the “worst president ever.”
They had no idea what they were talking about. This is what the “worst president ever” looks like. In his response to the attacks in Paris, Barack Obama has shown us a leader who is not just inadequate to his core responsibilities, but contemptuous of them.
It started Friday night with his first statement about the attacks. He was perfunctory, devoid of content, and utterly listless. His delivery was flat and without affect — expressing neither outrage nor sorrow — giving the impression that he had no desire to be in front of the cameras or to make any comment at all.
I don’t demand much out of an early press conference like this. The president still knows too few facts about the case and has not had time to formulate a detailed response. But he should at least look as if he cares. If France is “our oldest ally” and “represents the timeless values of human progress,” shouldn’t Obama be very engaged with what happens there?
By contrast, here was his same-day reaction to a mass shooting in Oregon six weeks earlier.
See especially the part about four minutes in. It’s clear that the prospect of imposing gun control domestically gets Obama riled up. Fighting the enemies of America overseas does not. But the first of these goals is actually prohibited to him by the Constitution — while the second is mandated for him. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a president whose personal priorities are so out of sync with the actual demands of his office.
The administration’s reaction has only gotten worse as it has had more days to respond. On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry let out the howler that the terrorist attack in France earlier this year — wiping out the headquarters of a satirical magazine that had offended radical Muslims — was kind of understandable.
There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of—not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people.
To be sure, this sentiment didn’t come from Obama himself. But he hired Kerry, who has a record of making horribly insensitive statements. He is the same guy who thought a James Taylor song was an appropriate response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre — and Obama apparently agreed that this would make up for skipping out on an international unity rally in support of France. So maybe we know now why the administration couldn’t really get mobilized to show support for Charlie Hebdo: deep down, they thought the magazine had it coming.
Obama’s administration can’t even get the easy, symbolic stuff right. But the real problem is the substance of his response.
That brings us to Obama’s petty, peevish press conference on Monday. This is the president who infamously dismissed the Islamic State as the junior varsity squad and described it as “contained” just hours before the attacks in Paris. So naturally, he faced a flurry of questions challenging him on that. At which point, as Politico put it, “he appeared to lose patience with repeated questions about whether he underestimated the threat of the terror network.”
Even Democrats are concerned that “at times he was patronizing, at other times he seemed annoyed and almost dismissive.” Nothing was more dismissive than this comment:
If folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan. If they think that somehow their advisors are better than the Chairman of my Joint Chiefs of Staff and the folks who are actually on the ground, I want to meet them. And we can have that debate. But what I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning, or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and to protect our allies and people like France. I’m too busy for that.
This was supposed to show that he doesn’t give a damn what his critics think, but it just shows that he doesn’t give a damn. This is the point inadvertently made by a blogger who praised him and put the issue in no uncertain terms, though I have bowdlerized it a bit to make it publishable on a family website.
We’ve kinda suspected it before, but President Obama genuinely gives no [damns] at this point. He is [damn] devoid. [Damn] deficient. [Damn] deprived. [Damn] destitute. His cupboard of [damns] is barren; his tank of [damns] has been depleted. You know how, on cloudy nights, you might look up into the vast and endless sky and not find any stars? The same thing would happen if you looked at Obama and searched for [damns]. And this, this total absence of [damns], is where pop off came from.”
This is supposed to make Obama “cool,” I guess, because it shows that he is defying the “haters” — those “haters” being his critics back home, not the guys shooting people on the streets of Paris. But it actually shows contempt for pretty much everybody. It’s contemptuous of some of his political allies, like Dianne Feinstein, who are concerned that the Islamic State is “not contained.” It’s contemptuous of the reporters who are asking him good, tough questions. And it’s contemptuous of the American people, who are suddenly concerned that attacks like the one in Paris are going to start happening in our own cities and who want some kind of reassurance that the president of the United States is on the job. They don’t want to be told that they are just “popping off,” or that the president isn’t taking their concerns seriously.
What they really want to hear is that America is leading and America is going to win. And Obama told us that he is above such petty concerns. Sure, he phrases it as opposition to empty sloganeering, but it’s revealing that when he thinks of empty slogans, he thinks of “America winning.”
So was this also empty sloganeering?
You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
Because that’s the sort of thing we need our president to say — and not just to say it, but to mean it.
To realize how seriously he takes this, consider the detail with which he describes his basic discomfort with the core responsibility of the commander-in-chief. In response to suggestions (which, in his typical style, he exaggerated) to increase our efforts against the Islamic State, he responded:
Let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria. What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya, perhaps? Or if there’s a terrorist network that’s operating anywhere else—in North Africa, or in Southeast Asia?
If I were Obama, by the way, I wouldn’t mention the idea of not sending troops to respond to a terrorist attack in Libya. Because he already did that, in Benghazi, and our ambassador and three other Americans died.
But the general point is a fair one. We can’t send troops everywhere. Does that mean we send them nowhere? Isn’t it his job to make those strategic allocations, to decide which threats are the most serious and require the most resources? And shouldn’t he consider that the threat from the Islamic State is getting a lot more serious? But he sees only the costs of action, not the costs of inaction, and he is paralyzed by it.
[E]very few months I go to Walter Reed, and I see a 25-year-old kid who’s paralyzed or has lost his limbs, and some of those are people I’ve ordered into battle. And so I can’t afford to play some of the political games that others may.
This is patronizing to our service members, who signed up for the job of killing terrorists, not just to sit around on base. But in case we didn’t get the point, he added:
[T]here are costs to the other side. I just want to remind people, this is not an abstraction. When we send troops in, those troops get injured, they get killed; they’re away from their families; our country spends hundreds of billions of dollars.
Obama’s outlook on national security is profoundly defeatist. He sees only the costs of action and regards victory as an illusion. Vox’s Matt Yglesias offers an essential explanation, from a sympathetic source, of how things look to Obama administration insiders.
Many senior administration officials at this point are part of the permanent national security apparatus, but the core group of real ‘Obama people’ has a surprisingly dovish self-conception, where they see themselves operating in a world in which demands for military intervention are constant and endless—from the media, from congressional Republicans, from foreign governments and their allies in Washington, and from the permanent security bureaucracy itself—but America’s actual ability to engage in non-counterproductive interventions is quite limited.
Thus, Yglesias concludes, “the hardest problem in US counterterrorism policy is in some ways as much a speechwriting challenge as anything else. The next time something goes wrong and an attack hits the United States, how do you sell the American people on the idea of not really doing anything about it?”
So the hardest problem in counter-terrorism is how to write speeches, or better yet, how to write speeches about doing nothing?
Well, I supposed that’s what we should expect from a president who got elected for his speeches and not for doing anything. And this, I suspect, is how he is going to end up being remembered as commander-in-chief: as the guy who, in a crisis, gave us petulant speeches about why he was doing nothing.
This is one of those moments when you almost appreciate the parliamentary system, which can hold a vote of no confidence in the chief executive. You want to talk about popping off? If Obama is traumatized and overwhelmed by the job of being commander-in-chief, he can pop off to the golf course and clear the way for someone else to do it.