Obama's oval effort: Why the pundits dismissed the terror speech

The pundits almost universally panned President Obama’s Oval Office address on terrorism.

Nothing new, heard it all before, not much passion: that was the media consensus. And at 13 minutes, it was strikingly short for an Obama prime-time speech, or any Obama speech.

To be sure, journalists weren’t the target group. Sometimes presidential speeches connect with the public, even after negative media reviews.

And Sunday night’s address was clearly a do-over for the president, who sounded defensive and dismissive when he first took questions on the Paris attacks, and didn’t quite strike the right tone on the San Bernardino massacre.

When a politician gives a major speech, I always ask: What headline did he want it to produce? Obama didn’t really offer anything new. He set out to reassure the country that his strategy against ISIS is working and we must not give in to fear. But given the lack of a new proposal, or even a stirring new phrase, meant there really was no headline—and more important, no change in the terror debate.

Obama did call the California shootings terrorism, and that’s a start, but not Islamic terrorism, despite mounting evidence of the couple’s belief in ISIS.

Here’s how the press played it:

Washington Post:  “President Obama turned to a venue he doesn’t like to discuss a subject he would rather avoid.”

Politico: “From the spot where George W. Bush spoke the night of Sept. 11, Richard Nixon resigned and John F. Kennedy talked civil rights and the Cuban Missile Crisis (all seated, behind where he stood), Obama looked firmly into the camera and gave America a not-so-peppy pep talk.”

The New York Times said he was trying “to make the case that his administration was ahead of the problem, not playing catch-up — contrary to the critiques presented by many of his former counterterrorism advisers.”

National Review’s Jim Geraghty: “Obama speaks with only one tone, the slightly exasperated and sometimes not-merely-slightly exasperated ‘adult in the room’ who constantly has to correct his fellow Americans, who are always flying off the handle,

And MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough tweeted: “God. Is this guy really going to be responsible for our fight against ISIS for the next year? Political platitudes replace military strategy.”

About the only semi-positive assessment I saw was from Slate’s Fred Kaplan. His headline:

“Obama's Honesty on ISIS is Better Than Conservatives' Reckless Delusions.”

His point was that Obama “doesn’t have dramatic answers,” but none of the Republican candidates do either. Pretty faint praise.

Obama’s message amounted to stay the course, but that’s less than calming after the last two attacks. He reiterated that he doesn’t want to see America at war with Islam. And he again called for gun control measures, including the denial of purchases to those on the no-fly list.

Which leads me to this thought-provoking post by Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal Talking Points Memo:

“The president now comes out after every mass shooting and, with (understandably) building frustration, says the country will eventually have to get serious and tackle this problem, knowing full well that it doesn't seem likely that's going to happen any time in the remotely near future - certainly not during his presidency. A big part of the outrage to this constant string of mass shootings is not just the carnage itself but the near certainty that no matter how frequent these massacres become, no matter how young the victims, no matter how high the body count, absolutely nothing is going to happen to make it harder to get a gun to go kill people. That means that when we talk about 'gun control' the first thing almost everybody thinks is about something that is never going to happen, because our polarized politics won't letter it happen.

“So coming into the debate about terrorism, a topic which grips the national psyche like almost no other issue, talking about gun control is not only iffy on the policy merits but sends a very bad signal that what you're proposing to get a handle on the problem is something we all know to a damn certainty isn't even going to happen.”

An interesting argument from the left. Obama wants gun control. Many Democrats want gun control. But gun control is going nowhere; the president has never even gotten any bill to a committee vote.

The pundits, in their unanimity, could be wrong. Sometimes presidential speeches connect with the public despite being panned by the press. But at the moment, there’s no sign that Obama has changed the tenor of the terror debate.

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