Often in U.S. history, the president stands virtually alone at the precipice of war. He gathers Congress for an address to an uncertain nation and declares, "Here is why we must fight." This is not one of those times.
In a few hours, President Obama will stand before a public that, without his leadership, largely determined that the Islamic State must be stopped. What they want to hear from their commander-in-chief is, "I'm ready to fight." With that dynamic in mind, here are five things to watch for tonight.
Does the president recognize the Islamic State as a serious threat? Obama compared ISIS to a "JV team," blamed social media for exaggerating the threat, and called ISIS a "manageable problem." The rhetoric didn't match public outrage over the executions of two American journalists, nor the dire warnings of Obama's own Cabinet members. White House officials say Obama's address tonight is carefully scripted to show that he shares the public's sense of urgency.
Can he strike the right balance between hawk and dove? Obama has to find a way to be tough—but not too tough, knowing that most voters, paradoxically, appreciate his deliberative style and are frustrated by it. He says he won't order U.S. ground troops into battle against ISIS, which aligns him with the public. Polls suggest a majority of Americans don't want to be drawn that deeply into another war in the Middle East.