Paris and the Press Put Obama on the Defensive

The president spent Monday’s press conference repeatedly making the same arguments in response to tough questions.

President Obama pauses during a news conference following the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, on Monday.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Nov. 16, 2015, 1:39 p.m.

It has been a year since the coun­try has seen Pres­id­ent Obama quite as de­fens­ive as he was dur­ing Monday’s press con­fer­ence at the con­clu­sion of the G-20 sum­mit in Tur­key. Back in Novem­ber 2014, he was reel­ing from a pum­mel­ing in the midterm elec­tions. Today, the stakes are far high­er as he fights for his an­ti­ter­ror­ism strategy in the wake of the bloody mas­sacre of ci­vil­ians in Par­is.

In his first ex­ten­ded pub­lic dis­cus­sion of the tra­ject­ory of that policy after Par­is, it did not go well for the pres­id­ent at the press con­fer­ence in An­t­a­lya. He was on the de­fens­ive on his over­all strategy, on his ini­tial dis­missal of the en­emy’s strength, on his mil­it­ary re­sponse, on his dip­lomacy, and on his will­ing­ness to ac­cept refugees from Syr­ia. And there was no hid­ing his frus­tra­tion.

There were 11 ques­tions asked, but they all boiled down to two: Why did you un­der­es­tim­ate the po­tency of the Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ists who seized so much ter­rit­ory in Ir­aq and Syr­ia and struck in Par­is with such bru­tal­ity? And why isn’t your strategy work­ing?

Jim Acosta of CNN was the most col­or­ful in pos­ing the ques­tion, ask­ing, “Why can’t we take out these bas­tards?” Obama’s frus­tra­tion was palp­able: “Well, Jim, I just spent the last three ques­tions an­swer­ing that very ques­tion” was his im­me­di­ate re­sponse. He tried again to out­line his policy, only to have Ron Al­len of NBC come back at him with, “Do you think you really un­der­stand this en­emy well enough to de­feat them and to pro­tect the home­land?” At that, the pres­id­ent com­plained of what he called “an­oth­er vari­ation on the same ques­tion.”

Obama still is pay­ing the price for the way he dis­missed IS­IS in Janu­ary 2014, four days after the ter­ror­ists seized con­trol of the Ir­aqi city of Fal­lu­jah. In an in­ter­view with Dav­id Rem­nick of The New York­er, the pres­id­ent said, “The ana­logy we use around here some­times, and I think is ac­cur­ate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uni­forms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bry­ant.” Those words have haunted the White House ever since and were at the heart of the ac­cus­at­ory ques­tions in Tur­key.

“No,” he in­sisted, “we haven’t un­der­es­tim­ated [their] abil­it­ies.” And, “there has been an acute aware­ness of the part of my ad­min­is­tra­tion from the start …” And still again, “Let me try one last time—we have been fully aware of the po­ten­tial cap­ab­il­it­ies of them car­ry­ing out a ter­ror­ist at­tack.”

Be­cause of his own poorly chosen words and be­cause Amer­ic­ans feel in­creas­ingly vul­ner­able after Par­is, this is a battle that the pres­id­ent is un­likely to win. He was on much stronger ground, however, when he shif­ted the fo­cus from what he has said to what his polit­ic­al op­pon­ents are say­ing on the cam­paign trail. It is hard to dis­pute him when he sug­gests that the Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for his of­fice are of­fer­ing more bluster than thought­ful policy pre­scrip­tions.

“When you listen to what they ac­tu­ally have to say, what they’re pro­pos­ing, most of the time, when pressed, they de­scribe things we’re already do­ing,” he said, adding, “Some of them seem to think that, if I was just more bel­li­cose in ex­press­ing what we’re do­ing, that that would make a dif­fer­ence. Be­cause that seems to be the only thing that they’re do­ing, is talk­ing as if they’re tough. But I haven’t seen par­tic­u­lar strategies that they would sug­gest that would make a real dif­fer­ence.”

Obama was at his strongest, both in policy and in emo­tion, in re­mind­ing the gathered re­port­ers that, as pres­id­ent, he does not have the lux­ury of play­ing to pop­u­lar emo­tion. “What I do not do is to take ac­tions either be­cause it is go­ing to work polit­ic­ally or it is some­how, in the ab­stract, to make Amer­ica look tough or make me look tough.” Maybe he be­lieves that, he sug­ges­ted, “be­cause every few months I go to Wal­ter Reed. And I see a 25-year-old kid that is para­lyzed or has lost his limbs. And some of those are people I’ve ordered in­to battle. And so I can’t af­ford to play some of the polit­ic­al games that oth­ers may.”

He skewered his crit­ics, mock­ing the no­tion that “some­how their ad­visers are bet­ter than the chair­man of my Joint Chiefs of Staff and the folks who are ac­tu­ally on the ground.” And he made it clear that he re­mains res­ol­utely op­posed to send ground troops in to battle IS­IS. His com­ments were a re­mind­er that pres­id­ents can­not af­ford to be as in­ju­di­cious as can­did­ates when talk­ing about war and the com­mit­ment of mil­it­ary forces, par­tic­u­larly after the un­happy ex­per­i­ence of the last pres­id­ent’s de­cision to wage war in Ir­aq.

But be­ing so far from home, the pres­id­ent may be un­der­es­tim­at­ing how anxious the Amer­ic­an people are after Par­is. They are frightened and they look to their pres­id­ent to keep them safe. Obama has con­sid­er­ably more work to do to provide that needed re­as­sur­ance, a task made even more daunt­ing by his in­sist­ence that the United States can safely ab­sorb thou­sands of Syr­i­an refugees. As a grow­ing num­ber of states with Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors pull away the wel­come mat for those refugees, the pres­id­ent has a long way to go to make his case that “the United States has to step up and do its part.” If he wants to pre­vail on this, he will need to get off the de­fens­ive and go on of­fense, something he couldn’t do Monday in Tur­key.

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