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.
Is he building a genuine coalition of Muslim states? The so-called coalition of the willing under President George W. Bush was largely a mirage. With ISIS posing an existential threat to regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Obama has both a responsibility and opportunity to convince Muslim allies to do the heavy lifting. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius asked the right question: "Is the United States walking into a trap that has been constructed by the Islamic State—launching attacks that will rally jihadists around the world? From everything the jihadists proclaim in their propaganda, we can sense that they have been dreaming of this showdown. This is why the United States needs to make sure that, with every step it takes, it is surrounded by Muslim friends and allies."
Does he blame Bush or Republicans—or anybody other than ISIS? Leave it to historians to second-guess U.S. policies that created a vacuum for ISIS's ideology of hatred, starting with Bush's ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003 and including Obama's ill-fated withdrawal. Obama should focus on the future, hopefully one without another 9/11-size attack.
What is Obama's exit strategy? The New York Times reported this week that Obama's plan calls for a campaign that could last three years. That time frame seems falsely precise—and overly optimistic. Once again, Ignatius asks the right questions: "How will the United States and its allies know when they have "won"? Or will this be more like the Cold War, a decades-long ideological battle punctuated by periods of intense local combat? If so, are the American people ready for such a long and patient struggle?"
That last question stuck with me. We're angry and scared now. We want to fight. History suggests that we will rally behind the commander in chief in the immediate aftermath of tonight's address. But it wasn't that long ago—a matter of weeks, really—when "war-weary" was the go-to adjective for "Americans." We will grow weary again, and Obama may need to draw on tonight's speech to remind people, "This is why we must fight."