(The Root) — When you've got conservative USA Today columnist Glenn Harlan Reynolds choosing to quote progressive Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates on his way to making the case that the president's plan for military intervention in Syria is "dumb," it's safe to say that if you're Barack Obama, what you've got on your hands is a failure to communicate.
Because leading up to Tuesday's prime-time address, that kind of bipartisan skepticism was as sure a sign as any that Obama hasn't made his case for military intervention.
It's been a perfect storm of sloppy administration messaging; a Congress in the habit of posturing — not making hard choices; and a public wary of getting further mired in the Middle East, with a new USA Today-Pew Research Center poll showing that 63 percent of Americans are against military intervention.
The only daylight Obama's seen on the issue was the fast-paced 24 hours leading up to his speech, when Russia lunged at an offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry and offered up a (potentially bogus) proposal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons.
Stay tuned on that.
But while the latest developments play out, Americans still have to sort through the case Obama presented. Even with a timeout for Kerry's shuttle diplomacy — he goes to Geneva on Thursday — Obama's asking Congress and the public for backing in a war that even he agrees has no completely sound options.
Here's the good, the bad and the ugly of what he said:
Obama gave a comprehensive speech that's worth reading — even if his delivery left you flat — because in a fairly crisp 15 minutes, he outlined why chemical weapons are a threat, the potential consequences of inaction, his reason for seeking congressional approval, the difference between Syria and the Iraq War, his belief that the threat of missile strikes is what led to Syria's last-minute offer and his belief that even though Americans shouldn't be the "world's policeman," for better or worse, we're the "anchor of global security."
And no matter where you stand on the issue, it was refreshing to hear the case for war being made without gauzy rhetorical flourishes like "axis of evil." It was no-frills and, in the president's words, simply about "Syria — why it matters, and where we go from here."
But Obama didn't quite make the sale, because after his address, it's still not clear that what's happening in Syria has direct implications for our national security. And while his argument — that if "we can stop children from being gassed to death," we'll "make our own children safer over the long run" — might wind up being true, it's an argument that Americans aren't really buying right now.
And there were moments when Obama seemed off-pitch. Like when he latched onto the phrase "we don't do pinpricks" as a way to describe the "targeted" nature of potential military strikes. You sort of knew what he was trying to say, but it had the unfortunate quality of sounding just as tin-eared as — and stood in direct contradiction to — Kerry's earlier assertion that any American military action would be "unbelievably small."
That's a sign that the president's speechwriting team — himself included — needs a transfusion of new blood and new ideas, and probably a couple of solid nights' sleep.
It was more than a "pinprick" of a speech, but it wasn't "mission accomplished," either.
But for Obama, it should at least put down the idea that rapidly gained ground in the last week: that he was headed for a humiliating rebuke of his foreign policy. He's now articulated that if diplomacy fails, he wants to strike, and shifts the ball from his court to the United Nations and Congress. If they balk, it'll be each of their turns to give their reasons why.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.