Was Obama's ISIS speech on Sunday a "failure of tone" only?

We’ve had some time now to digest the fallout from the President’s divisive and yet ineffective prime time speech on Sunday night, but there are still lingering questions over which primrose path we’re being led down. Could Obama have done better? Surely. That seems to be the consensus from both sides of the aisle for a change, at least in some quarters. But aside from coming up with an actual plan for how to defeat ISIS or abandoning the foolhardy notion that disarming the citizenry would somehow make us more safe, what else could he have done?

Yesterday I saw at least one suggestion from Jonathan Capehart at the WaPo, but it wasn’t tactical advice for Barack Obama. Rather, he had some guiding words for the members of Congress who are apparently tying the poor president’s hands.

First, however, he describes the challenge facing the president as being essentially impossible, leading to a failure of “tone.”

President Obama has the impossible job of calming a freaked-out nation while trying to “destroy ISIL [the Islamic State] and any other organization that tries to harm us,” as he vowed in his Oval Office address Sunday night. And he has to do it in a presidential election year when emotions trump facts, red-hot rhetoric passes for policy and rational debate is futile.

Because said task is impossible, Obama’s speech was bound to leave folks unsatisfied. If his tone were an oven setting, it was “pre-heat” while the nation clamors for “broil” in the wake of the Islamic State-inspired slaughter in San Bernadino, Calif., last week and the Islamic State-directed attacks in Paris last month.

I’m not going to argue with Jonathan over the importance of tone. In many jobs your tone doesn’t matter all that much, but when you are a leader (either military or political – in the case of the POTUS it’s both) your tone and manner can be not only highly significant in conveying your message, but it can be critical to inspiring your citizens and your troops. Was Obama’s tone “lacking” in some way? Yes, it was, as I said yesterday. But it was also far more than that. It’s true that the nation didn’t need to be scolded over our failure to understand Barack Obama’s brilliant and thus far flawless strategy in defeating our enemy, but some hints about improvements to the current course of action wouldn’t have been amiss either.

Moving on from the tone, though, Capehart has a request (or perhaps a demand) for Congress.

Everything Obama has done against the Islamic State — the special operations forces, the airstrikes — has been conducted by stretching the limits of the 2001 AUMF that gave President George W. Bush the power to go after al-Qaeda after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On Feb. 11, Obama not only sent Congress a request for a new AUMF, but also the draft of one specifically tailored to battling the Islamic State. It has gone nowhere ever since, which makes all the saber-rattling, chest-thumping bravado coming from the GOP the definition of lame.

If the United States is to truly be at war with the Islamic State, then Congress must grant him a new AUMF after engaging in the sober and humbling debate required of it. Declarations of war are their exclusive constitutional duty. For folks who so revere the Constitution, who bleat on about checks and balances and accuse Obama of ignoring them, it is astounding they would willingly cede this power to the executive.

At the end of the day, this is one of the few points that Capehart and I agree on… we could use something concrete from Congress to not only fulfill their duty but inform their constituents of where we stand and where we’re going from here. But the rest of the argument has some serious holes in it. First of all, Jonathan mentions the original draft of an AUMF that Obama delivered to Congress. That document was nonsense and there’s no reason for any member to support it. A resolution which essentially declares war should never place time limits or strategic handcuffs on the Commander in Chief. That’s not to say he has to send any given amount of troops any more than Congress should dictate how many bombs he can drop. War is war. But the authorization should leave all options on the table for him. Obama sough to tie his own hands with that AUMF, giving him the chance to blame Congress later if the effort failed. Also, it had time limits on it. Nobody knows how the tides of war will ebb and flow. Allowing him to put self-imposed limits on his power to lead the military to victory was preposterous.

But with that all said, a clean AUMF from Congress would not be amiss. It’s not required, as Jonathan seems to imply, because the President’s abilities under the War Powers Act are virtually limitless, at least for 90 days. After that period any president has Congress over a barrel and can get them to come along. Still, it would do both the nation and our allies good to see that we’re all on the same page in the United States and that we plan to win this thing. With that in mind, somebody in Congress should get off the stick and get a short, clean, concise AUMF pushed through. If the President wants to veto it because it doesn’t put enough limits on him then we are doomed anyway.

One short note in closing about the President’s response to San Bernardino: how impressed were Americans? Not very.