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.