NPR's Steve Inskeep began an interview with Obama by setting on a tee what might have looked to some like a giant softball:
STEVE INSKEEP: I have been reading a history of part of the Cold War. Dwight Eisenhower was president, he's meeting his cabinet sometimes in this room where we're sitting. The Soviet Union has emerged as a major nuclear threat. The country is very worried at this point in the 1950s. But Eisenhower is convinced that they are not that strong, that the United States is stronger, that the U.S. will win if we just avoid a huge war.Obama took it for a ball:
And he decides to try to reassure the public, gives a series of speeches, saying, keep your chin up, everything's fine, our strategy is working. It's a total failure. The public doesn't believe him. He is accused of a failure of leadership, and his approval rating goes down.
Are you going through the same experience now with regard to ISIS?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I tell you, first of all, I wasn't the Supreme Allied Commander helping to defeat Hitler, so he had a little credibility that he was working with. But ISIL is also not the Soviet Union. And I think that it is very important for us to understand this is a serious challenge. ISIS is a virulent, nasty organization that has gained a foothold in ungoverned spaces effectively in Syria and parts of western Iraq.That is, I'm not Eisenhower and ISIS is not the Soviet Union. Chill.
There followed lots of credible detail about how he was dealing with the threat. But the meta-message was, again, one that's very hard for the country to absorb right now: "what is important is for people to recognize that the power, the strength of the United States and its allies are not threatened by an organization like this."
This pattern defined the interview. Inskeep is about as far as you can get from a sensationalist interviewer. But repeatedly, Obama turned away his suggestions and invitations to identify scapegoats and crises. For example, the media:
INSKEEP: You referred to ISIL's sophisticated media operation and also referred to what Americans are seeing in the American media. Are you suggesting that the media are being played in a sense here?And as to an alleged national crisis of identity:
OBAMA: Look, the media is pursuing ratings. This is a legitimate news story. I think that, you know, it's up to the media to make a determination about how they want to cover things. There is no doubt that the actions of ISIL are designed to amplify their power and the threat that they pose. That helps them recruit, that adds in the twisted thoughts of some young person that they might want to have carry out an action, that somehow they're part of a larger movement. And so I think that the American people absorb that, understandably are of concern.
INSKEEP: Mr. President, we are nearing the end of a year where the question of national identity, who we are, has been a part of one large event after another. I made a list here, in fact. Gay marriage, the black lives matter movement, immigration, the question of whether to admit Syrian refugees into the country, the question of whether to admit Muslims into the country. All of them in some sense touch on that question of who we are.Here too, Obama tacked back to acknowledge that the current pitch of identity conflict is high. But again, the long-term threat level is low:
What is the reason, the cause, what has caused that issue of who we are to come forward again and again and again at this moment in history?
OBAMA: Steve, it never went away. That's at the center of the American experience. You pick any year or any decade in American history and this question has been wrestled with. Sometimes it pops up a little more prominently, sometimes it gets tamped down a little bit, but this has been true since the founding and the central question of slavery, and who is a citizen and who is not.
You know, during that process there's going to be some noise and some discomfort, but I am absolutely confident that over the long term, it leads to a fair, more just, healthier America. Sometimes progress is a little uncomfortable.Obama also reverted to old habit in this interview by holding up poor messaging as the one failing he'll cop to. (I doubt that's right -- I think people simply hold him responsible for the fact that ISIS sprang up and metastasized on his watch.) Today, Brian Beutler suggested that finding an effective message to counter the hysteria may be impossible:
But with respect to preventing a relatively minor risk like terrorism from becoming a source of panic, it’s genuinely unclear what an effective messaging strategy—one that counteracts fear mongering and creates calm—would look like.That may be true in the short term. The Paris and San Bernardino attacks reversed an upward trajectory in Obama's approval numbers. And it may be true in the long term if attacks keep proliferating and/or there's no visible success against ISIS before the next election.
But Americans did elect Obama twice. At the core of his appeal is a faith -- presented as a fact-based faith -- in the long-term strength of American institutions and strategic position in the world. Barring major shocks or apparent strategic failure, his calm rationalism may ride out the hysteria.
Postscript: In each of the demurrals cited above, Obama did tack back, implicitly or explicitly, to acknowledge that Inskeep had a point. First, re the Eisenhower comparison:
And, you know, unfortunately many of these critics can get away with just suggesting that bombing more, or being less discriminant in how we approach that, would make a difference. Let me put it this way. I trust my commanders, folks who have fought long and hard in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, when they describe to me, here's how we're going to gather intelligence, here is how we are going to approach targeting.While the contrast in scale between these conflicts and World War II and the Cold War remains, Obama here is citing long experience working with -- and commanding -- the US military in combat.
We've been at this for a long time in Afghanistan, Iraq, and places like Somalia and Yemen, where we have gone after terrorist targets. And the key is to make sure that we've got sound intelligence. And I make no apologies for us wanting to do this appropriately and in a way that is consistent with American values.
With respect to the media, Obama did not really suggest that it is not being played -- rather, that ISIS knows how to do so, and so the result is inevitable. Finally, re the spike in racial/ethnic tensions, he did acknowledge that they're on a current upswing, before attributing that fact to a) stagnant wages and the loss of manufacturing jobs, b) documentation of abuses enabled by cell phones, and c) for some people, his own biography and racial identity.
In each case, though, Obama cast the alleged crisis or problem as manageable, inevitable, normal, or all of the above.
Postscript II: It is fascinating to witness the way secondhand media accounts of this interview decontextualize everything that Obama so carefully contextualized. Obama's intended takeaways are that the country is well-positioned to defeat ISIS and to deal effectively with domestic racial and ethnic tensions. The headlined quotes empahsize that Trump is exploiting economic frustrations, the media is hyping ISIS, and Obama's blackness exacerbates GOP hostility -- all of which Obama acknowledged but subordinated to what he cast as the more important big-picture realities. CNN, for example, led by mashing together Obama's comments on Trump and his own ethnicity, eliding the before-and-after caveats:
But that's not to suggest that everybody who objects to my policies may not have perfectly good reasons for it. If you are living in a town that historically has relied on coal and you see coal jobs diminishing, you probably are going to be more susceptible to the argument that I've been wiping out the economy in your area....and
I think that there's always going to be, every president, a certain cohort that just doesn't like your policies, doesn't like your party, what have you. I think if you are talking about the specific virulence of some of the opposition directed towards me, then, you know, that may be explained by the particulars of who I am.Even more egregiously, with respect to the media's role, CNN left out Inskeep's rather baited question about whether the media was getting played by ISIS, making Obama's refusal to take the bait sound like the opposite:
On the other hand, I'm not unique to that. I always try to remind people that, goodness, if you look at what they said about Jefferson or Lincoln or FDR — finding reasons not to like a president, that's, you know, a well-traveled path here in this country.
"If you've been watching television for the last month, all you have been seeing, all you have been hearing about is these guys with masks or black flags who are potentially coming to get you," he said in the NPR interview. "So I understand why people are concerned about it."Of course, the worldly Obama who knows the media will pursue ratings also knows or should know what they'll pull out of highly nuanced pronouncements.
"Look, the media is pursuing ratings," he added later. "This is a legitimate news story. I think that, you know, it's up to the media to make a determination about how they want to cover things."