In his speech Monday night, President Obama set out to answer questions about the kinetic military actions in Libya, over a week after air strikes started. The President has been nearly universally criticized for this delay. More troubling for his political operation is the fact that the speech had to answer questions, rather than frame the need for the mission.
The American public is used to a certain script for military actions, even if they aren’t warned in advance. Just after the initial strike, the President appears on television, sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. He reassures, he provides reasons for the action, he presents both strength and a desire for peace. Though subordinates give further updates in the ensuing days, weeks, or months, the President makes the initial announcement. Obama did none of this, in what seems like an attempt to downplay the current conflict. Instead, it looks like he cribbed his messaging strategy from a young Kevin Bacon:
You can’t nonchalantly drop bombs on other countries. That’s the type of thing people talk about – and without the President’s authoritative explanation, the conversation could go in any direction. Polls show that America is ready to get behind their President and support the Libyan mission – but the public is also understandably wary about taking on too much responsibility. A five minute speech at the outset could have answered many questions before they were even asked.
Taken with some other patterns that have developed within his presidency, though, this may prove troubling for Obama’s reelection.
Flippant remarks – from Slurpees to salmon – have a way of eclipsing the content of his speeches. His rhetoric on regulations and Iraq have a way of mimicking his opponents. Tasking Congress to construct legislative packages from health care to financial reform previously looked like a strategy that allowed the President to set a broad policy direction without having to answer for the peculiarities of the specific legislation. Many of these seemed like great strategies at the time. In light of Libya, was the President getting too much credit?
“Looking Presidential” should be a major advantage to an incumbent. Distraction from major issues in favor of likability isn’t usually bad, either. But distractions can cross the line and the President loses control of his image and his agenda.
The mishandled messaging of the Libyan situation may be an isolated incident, but it may be a harbinger for a very disappointing 2012 for the Obama camp.