Live at 8 p.m. ET all across the dial, it’s just his third address from the Oval Office. The other two both came in 2010, one to announce the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq and the other to discuss the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an event that’s slipped way, way down in ensuing years on the list of things to be angry at Obama about. The fact that that merited an Oval Office telecast while, say, the Iran deal or the disastrous launch of ObamaCare or riots in Ferguson, etc, didn’t makes tonight’s speech feel as random as the New York Times avoiding page-one editorials for most of the major events of the 20th century only to fart one out yesterday about gun control. In both cases the strategy seems to be that when you’ve got nothing new or interesting to say about your base’s hobbyhorse, you should at least say it with maximum pomp.
The White House is billing this speech as an update on the San Bernardino attack in the context of “the broader threat of terrorism.” That’s not the memo CBS got, though:
— CBS News (@CBSNews) December 6, 2015
That’s not the memo Loretta Lynch got either:
She also said that he’ll speak on the actions the United States has taken to keep the homeland safe since the attacks in Paris last month. But there will be an element of politics to the speech.
President Obama will do more than just call for calm, he will ask “Congress to review measures and take action.”
Lynch’s staff later confirmed that the president will specifically call on Congress to review certain gun control measures.
Tom Elliott half-jokes, “I foresee Obama hitting terror tonight on all three root causes: the 2nd Amendment, the 1st Amendment, and global warming.”
You can imagine how this’ll go. He’ll start with San Bernardino, double down on his claim that ISIS is “contained” on the battlefield but that its below-the-radar western sympathizers remain a threat to their home countries, and then meander towards saying that one part of any effective counterterrorism strategy is preventing terrorists’ access to weapons, which is why he needs to take immediate executive action to close the “gun-show loophole” and/or strip people on the no-fly list of their right to buy guns without due process regardless of whether either of those things would have impeded Farook and his jihadbot wife. I don’t think he’ll go full metal gun-grabber by dwelling on the subject, though, for the same reason he didn’t do so a few days ago when he offered his “thoughts and prayers” for the victims’ families. Even this guy can’t be so deluded about Americans’ priorities that he’d believe gun control is what most people are thinking about right now rather than pondering how many other Farooks are out there. He may be tone-deaf but he got slapped around hard enough after scolding the public for worrying about Syrian refugees a few weeks ago that he must have learned a lesson from it. You don’t lecture your constituents about their supposed failings after the most deadly terror attack on the United States since 9/11. Right?
Here’s a question to chew on: Why is he giving this speech at all? No one expects to hear anything new from him about the terror threat. He’ll go on a bit about “lone wolves” self-radicalizing by consuming propaganda online and how that represents a “new kind of threat,” but we’ve heard it all before. The reason Obama took out Anwar al-Awlaki a few years ago, whatever the feds may say about his “operational planning,” is that his sermons about jihad seemed to hold special power to inspire far-flung amateur jihadis like Nidal Hasan. Lone wolves and Internet connections are nothing new. Meanwhile, the gun-control passages tonight will be a fine bit of pandering to his base, but they’ve heard all of that before too. And the pandering in this case comes at a steep price. We’re already headed towards record gun sales this year, with Black Friday a few weeks setting a new benchmark for background checks in a single day; a presidential warning about guns from the Oval Office on national TV is apt to spark the biggest gun-buying frenzy in modern history. (Maybe that’s Obama’s secret plan to put them out of business — to crush them under the sheer weight of demand for their product.) The smartest thing he and the Times could do to limit new gun purchases would be to stop talking about guns, and yet they persist, knowing there’s not the faintest chance a Republican Congress will agree to it. So why bother? The lame duck doesn’t need to impress liberal voters at this point, and his legacy as anti-gun is already secure among historians. Hillary will use gun control to rally the left whether or not Obama speaks up about it.
If there’s any “legacy” politics being played tonight, I think it has less to do with guns and more to do with O belatedly realizing that he’s going to leave office with a “caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East and various western nations battling a homegrown jihadi threat that’s greater now than when he took office. Americans’ concern about terror is spiking and yet most of O’s most memorable rhetoric has to do with ISIS being the “JV team” and why it’s wrong to say “radical Islam” and how it’s un-American for you to fret about jihadis exploiting the refugee process to infiltrate the country. His counterterror legacy, which started with aggressive drone strikes against jihadi leaders and peaked with the raid on Bin Laden, is collapsing. He needs to leave some kind of marker for historians that he was fully aware of the problem and took it seriously. That’s the point of this speech.