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The President As Pangloss

Walter Russell Mead

With public approval of his anti-ISIS efforts at 33 percent, President Obama took to the airwaves last night to bolster support for his counterterrorism strategy. Judging by the reaction in the national press, the speech fell flat. We shall see what the polls say, but it seems safe at this point to rule out a dramatic surge in the President’s support as a grateful nation responds to his dramatic appeal. A president once compared to Lincoln as an orator and Eisenhower as a strategist by his adoring supporters no longer seems credible or even interesting on the terror threat that many voters now think is the most biggest concern facing the nation.

Most of the public is no longer listening to President Obama on this topic; it is waiting for 2017 and the decisive repudiation of a global strategy that many of the President’s closest advisors and senior aides believe has failed. One thinks of the famous Boston Globe headline about a Jimmy Carter speech, added by a printer as a placeholder that somehow survived to the first morning edition: “More Mush From the Wimp.” Fairly or not, that is what more and more Americans hear when Obama speaks about terror.

The political consequences of the perceived failure of Obama’s national security approach are already on display. Secretary Clinton is running against the foreign policy of the man she served for four years. The neo-isolationist wing of the Republican Party has subsided into irrelevance. Donald Trump’s support surges on a wave of voter anger at a government and establishment many believe to be failing the threshold test on national security. President Obama’s legacy begins to look tragic; the primary goal of his presidency was to banish the specter of Andrew Jackson from American politics. Jacksonian foreign policy and Jacksonian populism at home are the forces Obama sees as embodying all that he fears and dislikes in America. Disappointed in Bush, bitter about the Iraq war, shocked by the Great Recession, Jacksonianism was on the retreat in the America of 2008. Obama and liberal Democrats hoped that as the “new FDR” and the “Democratic Reagan,” Obama would give Jacksonian America the coup de grace. The “bitter clingers” would fade away.

This clearly won’t be happening anytime soon. Jacksonian America has been energized rather than euthanized by the Obama presidency; in 2016 the Republican Party is looking to ride a Jacksonian wave into the White House, while the Democrats will do their best to deflect that wave by adapting to it. Hillary Clinton is going back to her roots as a “liberal hawk” in the hopes that she can assuage enough Jacksonian concerns about national security to ride out the storm.

The President’s defenders at this point are reduced to a single contention: For all its faults and flaws, no better strategy can be designed than the one the President has adopted. This is what you say when there is nothing else to be said. It is the argument of Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss: No matter how ugly the world may appear, President Obama has adopted the best of all possible strategies and so, given where the world stood in 2009, we now live in the best of all possible worlds. As each new disaster unfolds across the Middle East, the Panglossian chorus repeats the refrain: No better strategy exists; as bad as the consequences of the President’s policies appear to be, no better choices exist. It is one of those little ironies of history that President Obama has now adopted Margaret Thatcher’s response to her critics: There Is No Alternative.

Meanwhile, the President resolutely refrains from acknowledging the failures of conception, execution, and explication that have sapped the world’s confidence in his leadership. He does not speak about “lessons learned,” which leads people to believe that he hasn’t learned any. He does not acknowledge the corrosive consequences of unforced Presidential errors that have made the world worse (Libya, for example). He says nothing about the ruin of his strategy to heal the Middle East by building alliances with moderate Islamists. He does not address public concerns that he misjudged Putin’s Russia. He does not attempt to repair the damage that ill-chosen remarks (ISIS as the “junior varsity”) have done to public confidence in his judgment. He speaks about the “evolution” of the terror threat without acknowledging his earlier pronouncements that terror was devolving and becoming less dangerous.

The President and his defenders do not seem to understand that the track record of missteps undercuts the Panglossian defense. Does the best of all possible foreign policy strategies by the best of all possible leaders really involve a pointless invasion of Libya that turns the country into a haven for ISIS? Does it really involve hapless “red line” kerfluffles in Syria? Was there really nothing better anyone could have done in Afghanistan? Is the disaster in Syria now really something that no American President could have done anything to prevent or to mitigate? Is the growing chorus of ex-officials from his own staff completely misguided when so many of them point to errors and omissions that have cost the United States dearly on his watch? Is this really the best of all possible foreign policy track records in the best of all possible worlds?

The President remains wedded to the idea that he can enhance his prestige by ignoring his failures. And so his speeches fall flat. He lectures the public, still de haut en bas, still condescending to the fears of many Americans, still warning them against indulging their base Jacksonian instincts, still calling them to join him on the higher plane of a more sophisticated understanding of world affairs. At this point, the more the President speaks, the more he feeds the fears of the American people. The contrast between his smug self-assurance and what to so many Americans looks like a massive collapse in both our foreign and our counter-terror policies frightens and angers people and turbocharges Jacksonian reaction.

The President doesn’t just need a better strategy for coping with America’s enemies in the Middle East and at home. He needs a better strategy for describing and defending his policies to the American people. When prime time presidential speeches on matters of the highest importance leave no positive imprint on the public mind, it is a sign that the public is tuning a president out and writing him off.

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