President Obama's performance Wednesday at American University was feisty and fatalistic at the same time, his determination to sell his Iran deal blending with his resignation over the intransigence of his critics. Before he said a word, he knew that he would not be swaying any Republicans in Congress. But he doesn't need their votes. He needs enough Democrats to sustain his inevitable veto, making his target audience a very small group.
But this president once aimed much higher with his oratory. Six summers ago, he reached for the stars when he addressed the Muslim world and spoke of overcoming "decades of mistrust" with Iran. He promised "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims." In the 76 months between that speech and his visit to the AU campus, he has gone from trying "to make the world we seek" to urging his critics to see the world — or at least the Middle East — as it is and to accept his contention that there is no better deal to be had with Iran.
This is a president who has difficulty hiding his disinterest when he is forced to give a speech about a topic low on his priority list. But Iran is something he clearly cares about passionately. At his recent press conference, he all but begged for a chance to talk more about the deal he negotiated. And that passion was evident at American in his almost hour-long address. He sees extraordinarily high stakes in this debate, and he wants the country to see what he sees.
To make that point, he returned over and over again to the most reliable weapon in his arsenal. His opposition to the war in Iraq worked for him when he ran for the Senate in 2004. It worked for him again when he ran against Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. And it worked for him once more when he beat John McCain for president that year. So he was not shy about linking this upcoming vote to that war. He brought up Iraq 12 times, reminding his audience of the drumbeat for that invasion and the assurances that victory would be both swift and relatively easy.
Because he knows he will lose the initial vote in both the House and the Senate, Obama was on the defensive in parts of the speech, betraying a weariness, a been-there, done-that attitude, once pointedly reminding his audience, "I know — I was there." But he was also pugnacious, showing a thinly veiled impatience with critics whose motives he disparages and whose knowledge he questions.
He went to American to bathe in the historic light still shining on John F. Kennedy's famed 1963 speech there about the need for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. That day, Kennedy called on the world to dream about "genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living." It was both soaring and memorable. Fifty-two years later, Obama's 6,600 words almost doubled Kennedy's output but could not approach JFK's heights.
It was a speech that was less soaring oratory than a point-by-point vivisection of the arguments of his opponents. The president's frustration seemed particularly pointed when he talked of those who simply dismiss the results of months of negotiations contending, "We should get a better deal." Speaker John Boehner is a leader of this group, issuing a statement shortly after Obama concluded, stating, "The alternative to President Obama's bad deal with Iran is not war. The alternative is a better deal." A frustrated Obama noted that he hears that "over and over again." But he said that argument is "vague," "ignorant," and "not being straight with the American people." The opponents, he argued, are "selling a fantasy."
Rarely has a president used blunter language during a major foreign policy address. The tone reflects the White House assessment that Republicans are frozen in what the president called their "knee-jerk" opposition. So this speech targeted wavering Democrats, those that one senior official said "are on the edge" right now. "This," he said, speaking not for attribution, "was aimed at building our minority. Judged by that limited metric, the speech is likely to have been effective.