In perhaps no other speech of his presidency have both the best and worst of President Obama clearly been on display as they were in his address to the nation Sunday night, four days after 14 Americans were gunned down in San Bernardino.
At his best, the president offered reassurance to a shaken nation, promised ultimate victory, and reminded everyone of the reasons why they should not hate or distrust their neighbors. At his worst, he could not resist trying to score some political points on gun control and in his ongoing battles with Congress.
That the stakes are incredibly high was evident merely from the fact that the president was giving this speech and was giving it from the Oval Office itself. Obama doesn’t like giving speeches from his office and this was only his third in seven years. But that office is where the commander in chief works, and this was a speech in which the commander in chief needed to persuade skeptics that he is working there to keep them safe.
It was a speech that had to be given and probably should have been given days earlier, rather than let the fear and doubts grow. Most Americans—and the investigators—had concluded by Friday that the San Bernardino bloodbath was an act of terror done by two terrorists who plotted to strike in the middle of a holiday party. But they needed to hear this from the commander in chief and they needed to hear how he was going to give them a sense of security as they go about their holiday festivities and other normal daily routines.
A senior administration official told reporters Sunday that it was Friday when Obama decided he needed to speak. “We recognized that there are very real and legitimate fears in the United States and around the world about the nature of this terrorist threat,” said the official, adding, “Given those fears and given peoples’ concerns about this threat, and given the San Bernardino attack, the president made a determination at the end of the work week on Friday that he would go out and address broadly the threat that we are facing and provide the American people with a clear sense of how we need to deal with this threat as a country.”
If that was the goal, the question is whether the president succeeded in giving that “clear sense” of how to defeat the enemy. The simplest answer is that Obama pledged victory but said the best way to get there is with more of the same—more air strikes, more coordination with allies, more involvement by Muslim nations, more training of the Iraqi and Syrian fighters on the ground.
Earlier in the day, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential contender, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week that she hoped the president would lay out “an intensification of the existing strategy.” That turned out to be accurate. Clinton also added pressure before the speech, flatly declaring, “We’re not winning.”
It was Obama’s job to counter that, to declare that victory will come someday. He acknowledged that “many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.” His response was one of the best moments of the speech. Instead of his usual rhetoric about “degrading” the enemy, the president stated firmly, “The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”
His low point may have come when he insisted on veering into gun control. If the point of the speech was to unite the country and bring an anxious nation together, bringing up one of the most divisive domestic political issues is not a great way to do that—particularly when the administration has struggled to explain how the usual items on their gun agenda such as gun-show restrictions and better background checks would have made any difference in San Bernardino.
The president, though, quickly went from partisan to president with a strong appeal for fair treatment for American Muslims. “Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our coworkers, our sports heroes,” said the president, summoning the best of America and countering the often-ugly demagoguery heard on the campaign trail. But he wasn’t just asking Americans to avoid discrimination because it is the right thing to do. He also made perhaps his most effective pitch that it is also the smart thing to do because it will make it easier to isolate extremist Muslims and win the war.
There also was a nice touch hidden in his conclusion. Here was a president often battered by his critics for allegedly not believing in American exceptionalism sending a message to the Republicans campaigning for his job: “Let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional.”
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.