When Barack Obama went out on the campaign trail in 2007, the media fawned over his oratorical skills as though he was the reincarnation of Edward Everett. As President, however, Obama has revealed himself to be a mediocrity when not delivering campaign speeches. Certainly some outlets remain for the kind of stemwinders he delivers at fundraisers and campaign appearances, but his addresses to the nation as President have been mainly filled with cliches, platitudes, and vague statements rather than anything profound or at least informative.
Last night, Obama delivered yet another mediocre performance in what should have been a perfect setting: a war speech as Commander in Chief. He had the ability to be inspirational and talk of a great victory over tyranny and oppression; instead, he praised the performance of the troops without actually ever explicitly thanking them for it and skipped entirely any notion of victory. Instead of being gracious and effusive, Obama seemed to want to tamp down any enthusiasm over the effort made over the last several years in Iraq, a curious position for a Commander in Chief to take.
His one reference to his predecessor, who bucked strong opposition from Congress (including Obama) to persevere in the winning surge strategy, was to note that George Bush loved his country and the troops, about as dismissive as one could be without simply ignoring Bush entirely in the speech. Why bother mentioning Bush at all if that’s what Obama had to say about him? It sounded very much like an afterthought, a way of checking a box on his way to get to the end of the speech.
Obama then watered down his C-in-C status by oddly interjecting four paragraphs about the economy. Unlike a State of the Union address that moves cleanly from topic to topic in an omnibus manner, Obama shoehorned this brief speech on economics before returning to veterans affairs and reassuming the C-in-C mantle. If Obama wanted to give a comprehensive speech on White House policies, that would have been his prerogative, but the speech was billed as a war speech, and Obama went right back to war issues. Even that would have been a minor point had Obama said anything original to justify it — but instead, we got the usual platitudes and no specifics at all. Once again, the sense was that of checking boxes on a list. Bush? Check. Economy? Check.
It’s not to say that the speech was bad, or that it had no redeeming qualities. None of it was bad, really, just mainly unremarkable with a couple of exceptions. I did like this part:
Two weeks ago, America’s final combat brigade in Iraq –the Army’s Fourth Stryker Brigade –journeyed home in the pre-dawn darkness. Thousands of soldiers and hundreds of vehicles made the trip from Baghdad, the last of them passing into Kuwait in the early morning hours. Over seven years before, American troops and coalition partners had fought their way across similar highways, but this time no shots were fired. It was just a convoy of brave Americans, making their way home.
That was a rather well-written (and well-delivered) acknowledgment of the reality of the war on terror. There will be no surrender ceremonies on the deck of the USS Missouri, no capitulation documents, no terms of unconditional surrender. We will exit this war victoriously simply by going home on roads that we have made safe. This was the high point of the speech, perhaps made so by the utter lack of anything noteworthy, new, or even well-spoken in the rest of it.
Barack Obama took office as supposedly one of the most well-read, inspirational figures of our time. With each speech, Obama diminishes in stature, essentially mailing in his efforts and seeming to care little if anyone notices it.
Update: Bill Kristol liked it better than I did, but he scored it on a curve:
President Obama opposed the war in Iraq. He still thinks it was a mistake. It’s therefore unrealistic for supporters of the war to expect the president to give the speech John McCain would have given, or to expect President Obama to put the war in the context we would put it in. He simply doesn’t believe the war in Iraq was a necessary part of a broader effort to fight terror, to change the Middle East, etc. Given that (erroneous) view of his, I thought his speech was on the whole commendable, and even at times impressive.
Well, he’s not Candidate Obama any longer, nor is he Senator Obama. He’s President of all the people, and his performance should reflect that. I don’t expect a speech written by John McCain, but an explicit acknowledgment of the successes gained in the past few years would have been nice, as well as specifics about the nature of our commitment to keeping them in place. Other than platitudes of restating our commitment to Iraq in the vaguest possible terms, there was no there there. Why bother with a speech filled with the same vague generalizations he’s been saying about Iraq for the past nineteen months? Shouldn’t this have been a moment for specifics on issues like building an air force and navy for Iraq, the conditions that will allow us to fully withdraw, and why we want to remove ourselves from a key strategic location on Iran’s border rather than maintain a presence in Iraq much as we do for South Korea? Or do we wait for another Oval Office address for those specifics?