Like a pitcher who has lost his fastball, Barack Obama has lost “the speech.” The speech has always been central to the president and his presidency. He established his credentials with the one he delivered to the 2004 Democratic National Convention while still a state senator. He followed that with many others — Berlin, Cairo, Philadelphia on race, etc. — each one greeted with bobby soxer delirium, which Obama fully expected. In 2004, just before he spoke to the convention, he told his friend Marty Nesbitt that the excitement about him was yet to peak. “My speech is pretty good,” he allowed.
No more. The man who once said, “I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” has lost his stuff. His most recent speech at West Point was widely panned — and not just by the president’s usual critics. Even The New York Times editorial page joined in. It pronounced the address “largely uninspiring.” I would add the words contradictory, unpersuasive and in places just plain silly. The United States, he essentially said, will use force “when our people are threatened.” No kidding. Stop the presses!
I have sometimes liked Obama’s speeches, sometimes not. Recently, he has taken to slaying straw men, mad war-mongering types of his own creation who have called for boots on the ground in Syria. Obama did it again at West Point, but these criminally insane pundits do not exist. Some of us wanted some sort of intervention but not — never! — ground troops. Our modest hope was to save at least 100,000 lives, avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and not create a new playground for jihadists.
In this regard, Obama’s best speech was the one he delivered Aug. 31, 2013, in the Rose Garden. It was also his worst. In it, he cited the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and “well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children — young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.”
“This attack is an assault on human dignity,” the president added. “It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.”
Now the worse. The president stepped all over his eloquence by pitching the matter to Congress, which did nothing — its default mode, as Obama well knew. The murder and mayhem continued in Syria. As bad as this was, it is worth noting that Obama called Syria’s use of chemical weapons “a serious danger to our national security” — the red line a dimmed memory. This is precisely the prerequisite for military action he cited in his West Point speech. The president ought to read the president someday.
The Rose Garden speech is the very heart of the Obama Doctrine. Look no further. Every foreign policy speech since then has been an attempt to rationalize the mistake of doing nothing. This is why political leaders and others who urged merely arming the moderate Syrian opposition (not the jihadists) are caricatured as desiring boots on the ground. This is why a plainly diminished America is huffed and puffed as stronger and more important than ever. The president is trying to talk his way out of the corner he painted himself into. Words alone cannot do it.
All along, Obama’s weakness has been the lack of a worldview. Problems are approached individually — unconnected to anything else — and often left to languish. We pivot to Asia ... in a speech. We applaud the Arab Spring and promise hugs and kisses ... in a speech. We call recent developments in Ukraine a success for U.S. policy, but Russia’s seizure of Crimea stands. Sure, this was not Obama’s fault but it is not his success, either — and certainly not something to boast about.
What can be done? Although by nature a prudent man, there’s always the chance that Obama will overreact, attempt to show he is strong by doing something a tad reckless. In the meantime, no more speeches. They no longer work because they are no longer believed. They are coming attractions for a movie that never opens and merely reminds us all — the world’s bad guys most of all — of the president’s intellectually chaotic and bumbling foreign policy. Fix the policy, then give the speech.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.