Barack Obama faces a crisis in confidence among the American electorate — and he may only have one speech in which to correct it.
Today, the president will speak about his strategy to deal with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or ISIL), the genocidal terrorist army that has swept across a country that Obama insisted three years ago was "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant." After a summer spent focusing far more on golf swings and campaign fundraising, Obama has to convince Americans he has a strategy — and is competent enough to execute it.
The credibility issue goes farther than mere dissatisfaction with the tactical actions taken by Obama over the last few weeks. In fact, Ron Fournier notes that airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq enjoy strong bipartisan support in polling, as do the humanitarian interventions the U.S. has attempted with the Yazidis and other minorities threatened with genocide. Yet only 37 percent of respondents in the most recent CNN poll approve of his handling of the crisis in Iraq and Syria, and this week's Washington Post/ABC poll shows Obama's lowest approval ratings on foreign policy in the series, at 38 percent, with 56 percent disapproving. The disparity, Fournier concludes, is that the public sees Obama being led to action rather than demonstrating real leadership in a crisis.
This gap began opening three years ago, when the president claimed to have ended the war in Iraq with a complete American withdrawal. That, even though his own military advisers pressed Obama to get Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to agree to a significant American presence to deal with the still-active al Qaeda in Iraq network, which later became ISIS.
Throughout 2011 and 2012, Obama repeatedly bragged that he had "ended the war," and ripped Mitt Romney for his contention that the U.S. military should have remained engaged to fight terrorism in western Iraq.
Even as late as this year, Obama remained in denial about the nature of the threat. When David Remnick of The New Yorker asked about the threat of ISIS, which had sacked Fallujah in January after spreading from Syria, Obama dismissed the group as "jayvees" that were only a local threat. Five months later, the javvees of ISIS swept across northern Iraq, expelled the 2000-year-old Christian communities of Mosul and Nineveh, and nearly massacred the Yazidis while threatening to overrun the autonomous region of Kurdistan.
For weeks, Obama did nothing about the crisis, only acting with tactical strikes after ISIS trapped the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar and briefly seized control of the Mosul Dam, which threatened the lives and livelihoods of half a million Iraqis downstream.
In fact, this speech became necessary after another flippant response from Obama. At a press conference on Aug. 28th after his return from summer vacation in Martha's Vineyard, a reporter asked whether Obama needed congressional approval for airstrikes on neighboring Syria. "I don't want to put the cart before the horse," Obama replied. "We don't have a strategy yet."
By that time, U.S. forces had already been conducting airstrikes in Iraq, and ISIS had threatened Baghdad for more than two months. The very next day, Obama told the crowd at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser that the Middle East is "much less dangerous now" than it was "20 years ago, 25 years ago, or 30 years ago."
Needless to say, this didn't do anything to raise confidence in Obama's leadership — or in his connection to reality. The Washington Post editorial board warned that Obama didn't even seem to be paying attention to his own cabinet officials, especially Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, who insisted that ISIS had grown beyond just a terrorist group into an "imminent threat" that the U.S. had to confront "wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred." Obama followed that up by claiming that the U.S. goal was to "shrink" ISIS to a "manageable problem."
Now Obama has to formulate a strategy that catches up with reality. The American electorate may have tired of war, but new polling shows they they are even more anxious about the rise of a terrorist threat with global capabilities. The timing of the speech, a day before the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, make this an even riskier political moment for a president who had all but discounted emerging threats this year.
But that also puts the cart before the horse, as Obama would say. In order for the American public to accept any strategy laid out by the president, he has to show that he can engage with reality. Peter Baker at The New York Times gives us some context on that score, with a laundry list of Obama's previous assurances on national security. "Time and time again," Baker writes, "he has expressed assessments of the world that in the harsh glare of hindsight look out of kilter with the changed reality he now confronts."
That will be the first mission for Obama in his highly anticipated remarks today. He has to dispense with what The Washington Post calls his "fantasy" world, and convince the American people that he's up to the job of being commander-in-chief for the next two years. Otherwise, even a strategy co-written by George S. Patton and Carl von Clausewitz will do Obama little good, as he will have few remaining followers to give him the support needed to carry it out.