Obama Channels FDR, Minus the Timing and Trust

Seventy-four years after Pearl Harbor: 'Freedom is always more powerful than fear'

With Christmas lights reflected in the window, President Barack Obama makes an address to the nation in the Oval Office of the White House. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Americans to pull out their world maps and turn on their radios. In a Feb. 23, 1942 “fireside chat,” he eased fears, squelched rumors, and doused the last embers of isolationism. “This war is a new kind of war,” Roosevelt declared.

It is different from all other wars of the past, not only in its methods and weapons but also in its geography. It is warfare in terms of every continent, every island, every sea, every air lane in the world.

Fourteen years after terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the United States is mired in a new kind of war, and its latest twist – an apparent ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, Calif. – is stoking fear, inciting anti-Muslim demagoguery, and intensifying doubts about the leadership of President Barack Obama. In a rare Oval Office address, just the third of his presidency, Obama’s obligations tracked those of Roosevelt.

  • Acknowledge the public’s fears, don’t dismiss them.
  • Explain his strategy in a simple and compelling way.
  • Respond to critics factually and without defensiveness.
  • Ask for the public’s support and service.

The good news is Obama hit every mark in a forceful defense of U.S. values and strength. The bad news is he didn’t make the speech weeks or months ago and much of the country is predisposed not to trust his leadership. Obama also complicated his job by diluting his focus.

First, what he did well.

After seeming to ignore or even dismiss the public’s fears after attacks in Paris, Colorado and California, Obama said it’s perfectly natural for people to see themselves, their kids, and their friends as potential victims. “I know after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.”

Standing behind a lectern, in front of the familiar Oval Office desk, Obama then laid out his plan to fight what he called an “evolving” threat: More training and equipment for Iraqi and Syrian forces; more special operations forces on the ground; more cooperation with allies to disrupt ISIS plots and to stop recruiting and financing; and a push to end the Syrian civil war so allies and non-allies like Russia can turn against a common threat.

“That is our strategy to destroy ISIL,” Obama said, using his acronym for the Islamic State.

There was little new about the policy and Republicans will argue he’s not doing enough; many in the GOP are pushing for ground troops in the Middle East, which Obama notes is exactly what the Islamic State wants. But for Americans still open-minded about the path of war, Obama crisply described his plan and argued strongly for it.

He also asked Americans to do their part. “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam,” he said. “Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers and our sports heroes and, yes, they are the men and women in uniform willing to die in the defense of our country. We have to remember that.”

More strongly than ever, Obama said the Muslim community has an obligation to confront extremists among them “without excuse.” Being tolerant, the president said, “does not mean denying the fact that an extremist element” has spread within the Muslim community.

The one place where Obama wandered from his central message was on gun control. He urged Congress to deny guns to suspected terrorists on the no-fly list and to make it harder to buy assault weapons. Gun control advocates and Democratic activists cheered the language.

But to anybody else – even independents like me who support gun regulations – the San Bernardino attacks concentrated minds on ISIS and lone-wolf terrorists inspired by radical Islam. Gun control might now seem to be an ancillary, if important, issue. Obama probably did himself a favor by limiting the topic to a few sentences late in his speech.

The biggest problem with his speech is what Obama did, and didn’t do, before it.

He called the Islamic State a “J.V. team” before it started beheading American. He said ISIS was “contained” before it attacked Paris. His national security team said ISIS lacked the capability to attack the United States two weeks before the slaughter in San Bernardino

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Obama dismissed the Islamic State as “a bunch of killers with good social media” and drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans for his petulant response to critics. “He was at his worst just after the Paris attacks,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, “when he communicated as much irritation with the second-guessing of his stewardship as he did outrage over Paris and determination to destroy the Islamic State, or ISIS.”

Even worse, the Republican presidential field led by billionaire bully Donald Trump have called for tagging and tracking Muslims, closing mosques, religious tests for refugees and assorted other Islamophobia.

In this vacuum of leadership, polls show that the public has lost confidence in Obama, his strategy, and the government’s ability to keep them safe. In fact, it’s been years since a majority of the public told pollsters they had faith in the government to do anything well.

All this makes a reading of Roosevelt’s post-Pearl Harbor speech seem quaintly paternal. “Your government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst,” Roosevelt said, “without flinching or losing heart.”

Seventy-four years later, similarly Obama ended his address about a new kind of war. “Let’s not forget what makes us exceptional,” he said. “Let’s not forget that freedom is always more powerful than fear."