Ostensibly, Obama’s mission on Wednesday night was to rally the nation to address what majorities already believe is a significant threat to American national security: The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He spent most of his address touting his own record on national defense, defining the enemy, and outlining the objectives for American and coalition forces and regional partners.
But the president deviated from that circumspect purpose toward the end of the speech. Instead of preparing the nation to go to war, Obama addressed what he seemed to regard as, well, a crisis of confidence.
“America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth,” Obama said, marking a sharp veer away from the stated purpose of the speech. “Our technology companies and universities are unmatched; our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it’s been in decades. For all the work that remains, our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history.”
Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world. It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny. It is America — our scientists, our doctors, our know-how — that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola. It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so they cannot pose a threat to the Syrian people — or the world — again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.
The Hill’s A.B. Stoddard would later call these notes of optimism “laugh lines.”
The world has not mobilized behind the president to combat Islamist terrorism. In fact, the nation’s most important ally, Great Britain, has is engaged in a contentious internal debate over whether to participate in an air war against ISIS over Syria. America has not rallied the world to address Russian aggression, unless you consider the belated imposition of targeted sanctions on Russia which failed to deter Moscow from launching a direct invasion of neighboring Ukraine a success. Ebola is not contained. The World Health Organization is sounding every alarm they can about this epidemic, which is expanding “exponentially” in West Africa. Syria’s chemical weapons were not destroyed entirely, according to Obama’s own government. Hours before Obama spoke, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Syria of using chlorine gas on civilians.
“America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden,” Obama said. “But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.” This from the commander-in-chief who conceived a doctrine of “leading from behind,” and who campaigned for the office of the presidency in part on the notion that America should be relieved of some of the burdens associated with being a superpower by the international community.
Obama’s decision to shift from talking about the ISIS threat and the nation’s responsibility to combat it to a pep talk about the state of the nation was bizarre and atonal. It was not, however, inexplicable. This may be the clearest indication yet that President Barack Obama makes no distinction between how Americans feel about him and how they feel about the country as a whole.
Nearly six years into the post-recession recovery, Americans are feeling better about the state of their personal finances and those of the nation as a whole. A Pew Research Center survey from August revealed that those hearing mostly bad news about the economy tied a five year low while those hearing a mix of good and bad news approached a similar high. “A CNN/Opinion Research poll from last week, meanwhile, shows the percentage of Americans viewing the economy as “good” has steadily risen, from 32 percent in December to 36 percent in February to 38 percent in May to 41 percent today,” The Washington Post reported in August.
Americans’ perceptions of the state of global affairs have soured as international crises in Central America, North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe dominated the headlines in 2014. The public feels less safe than at any time since prior to the September 11th, 2001, and they see the post-Cold War geopolitical order, which yielded two decades of prosperity, collapsing.
Americans maintain a great deal of faith in institutions like the military, local police, small businesses and community churches. To the extent that there is a crisis of confidence in the United States, it is a crisis of confidence in government and public institutions. American faith in all three branches of the federal government reached all-time lows in June, according to Gallup. Obama fares no better with the public.
A Fox News poll released on Tuesday night revealed that, by double-digit margins, Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of every major issue of relevance. From health care to the economy, from terrorism to immigration, Americans are deeply distressed by how Obama is handling his job as president. Overall, the president’s job approval rating is now 19-points underwater among those most energized to exercise their franchise in November.
Americans are not down on the United States, they are down on Obama. It was a mistake for the president to conflate his own ebbing fortunes with those of the county he leads.