President Obama’s remarks yesterday in Turkey, and his subsequent statements during the press conference, received substantial and well-deserved criticism over the past 24 hours. As others have observed (also here and here and here), the President did not rise to – and indeed, seemed tone-deaf to – this particular historical moment. He seemed increasingly petulant and annoyed with even the mere suggestion that he has underestimated ISIL. This should come as little surprise to those who have observed this President for seven years: he seems to have real difficulty acknowledging his own failures or mistakes, becomes irritated when anyone suggests that he has failed or made mistakes, and pivots by either blaming others or being completely dismissive of opinions and arguments that differ from his. He uses a rhetorical device in which he feigns open-mindedness by inviting the views and proposals of others, but then almost invariably rejects those views and proposals in favor of his own. Whatever his other virtues, these particular traits are among his most bothersome, and they were all on full display yesterday.
What bothered me most, though, was his claim that he would not raise the temperature of his rhetoric against ISIL, that he would not engage in sloganeering or be more “bellicose” with his language about the battle against ISIL. The problem, of course, is that this President has had little difficulty with being bellicose, or using increasingly heated rhetoric, when it comes to Republicans, particularly those in Congress. In speech after speech, interview after interview, campaign-style rally after campaign-style rally, President Obama has chosen to fire up crowds with pugnacious language about his fights with congressional Republicans. How many times have we witnessed the President – as if he were some divinely-inspired evangelist, slowing elevating the volume of his voice, emphatically pronouncing the keys to salvation – bring crowds to their feet by telling them how much we need to win the fight against Republicans who would deprive them of voting rights, or equal pay, or a decent minimum wage, or racial equality, or some other policy in which he deeply believed but about which he was convinced that Republicans were obstructing progress? He even told us recently that by opposing the Iran nuclear deal, Republicans had a “common cause” with the Iranian hardliners chanting “Death to America.”
Presidents should generally be measured and temperate in their rhetoric. And bluster about ISIL will not, by itself, win the war. If that was the President’s point, it is a fair one. “No Drama Obama” – we get it. And no serious person thinks that the President does not care about the ISIL threat. In every presidency, of course, there are times when presidents can afford to be more impassioned and aggressive rhetorically, and times when their tone must be more diplomatic and cautious. The question now is why the normally sober and even-tempered President Obama so often reserves his public passion and pugnacity for Republicans, while the ISIL threat commands a more disinterested tone. In other words, why does it seem that being measured and temperate matters less when he is talking about Republicans than when he is talking about ISIL?