President Obama, like Candidate Obama before him, has relied heavily on the Big Explainer of a political speech to get him out of any number of tough political spots, from Jeremiah Wright to the financial meltdown to the outrage over big bailout bonuses.
These speeches have a signature architecture, which may be described as Obama’s Grand Unified Theory on Blank (Race, the American Economy, Too Big to Fail). Generally, he begins by reminding us of a little poignant history, then of the problems confronted and the challenges met. Then comes the patriotic exhortations of what the American character can accomplish if we band together against the common enemy and our own cynicism.
His coherence and clarity would be enhanced by the inevitable comparison to his immediate predecessor in the White House. During every Big Obama Speech, a slow wave of recognition would wash over you, and by the end you'd walk away thinking: “Now I get it.” Or you'd give him the benefit of the doubt because you thought, at least, he got it.
On Tuesday night, we got the president’s Grand Unified Theory on Afghanistan, and in it we may have begun to witness the limits of the political efficacy of the Big Obama Speech.
Given what he had to work with—no good options—the president did the best he could, but the question is, who's listening? He reminded us that Afghanistan was a war that al-Qaida started, not us, and that we only went after the Taliban because they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, after he killed 3,000 people on 9/11. He reminded us that the guys who occupied the White House before him made the monumental mistake of fighting a war of choice in Iraq, while neglecting one of necessity in Afghanistan.
He encouraged us to think back to the unity we felt in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and exhorted us to try to renew that feeling as he tries to “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” Americans, however, may no longer be interested in how the war started, just how soon it ends.
The president promised the cadets at West Point, on whose shoulders it will fall to fight the war, a mission that is “clearly defined” and worthy of their service. Though he talked about “defeating al-Qaida and its extremist allies” as a “narrowly defined” mission, he took 35 minutes to situate that mission in proper context—the trillion dollars already spent on the war; the poor comparisons to Vietnam; why more troops mean a shorter war; and the importance of a target date for exit.
It was all very well-explained; the question the White House must confront on Afghanistan, and to a lesser degree on Iraq, is whether there are any minds left to be changed. Americans are tired of those two wars, and they may no longer make any distinction between the good war in Afghanistan and the bad one in Iraq. Obama tried valiantly to convey that he understands American cynicism about the high costs being paid in Afghanistan:
“I have signed a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in these wars,” he said. “… I see firsthand the terrible wages of war. If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.”
That proposition probably makes sense to most people, but they just may not care enough to actually agree with it or support it. They’ve got their own problems. And the president's decision to include a long section on jobs and the U.S. economy in his speech is evidence that he understands this: Whatever he has to say about Afghanistan may be beside the point if the economy does not begin to recover soon.
“… As we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power,” he said. “… That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended—because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”
How he does that is something he will likely have to explain a lot more in the future.
Terence Samuel is The Root’s deputy editor.