Obama's Communications Gap

Obama's Communications Gap

By Carl M. Cannon - March 26, 2011

Twenty-five years ago this spring, a fleet of 100 U.S. warplanes staged a nighttime air raid over Libya, targeting numerous facilities associated with Muammar Gaddafi's deadly regime. Two hours later -- while some of the planes were still in the air -- President Reagan was explaining his rationale to the American people in a televised, prime time Oval Office address.

Reagan noted that Gaddafi had brutalized its own people, assassinated Libyans living abroad, and launched terrorist bombings, including one against off-duty U.S. soldiers in a German disco. "Self-defense is not only our right," Reagan proclaimed, "it is our duty."

"I have no illusion that tonight's action will bring down the curtain on Gaddafi's reign of terror," the president added. "But this mission, violent though it was, can bring closer a safer and more secure world for decent men and women."

Reagan certainly had the first part right: A generation later, Gaddafi is still in power, and still slaughtering Libyans who oppose him. And now, another U.S. commander-in-chief has unleashed American military force on Libya, this time in an attempt to end Gaddafi's rule once and for all. But even though President Obama's intentions are much more ambitious than Reagan's, the current president has not even attempted to be the Great Communicator.

President Obama hasn't given an Oval Office address at all, and his scheduled speech Monday evening at the national war college at Fort McNair -- nine days after the U.S.-led military mission commenced -- is unlikely to mute the criticism that has come from across the political spectrum.

"I cannot for the life of me see how an American president can launch a serious military action without a full and formal national address in which he explains to the American people why he is doing what he is doing, why it is right, and why it is very much in the national interest," wrote former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan.

Many progressives concur.

"I think he needs to face the nation and tell the nation, and tell Congress, what the end game is and how this going to play out," Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said Thursday on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

"I am absolutely ready to punch the wall over the fact that Obama hasn't spoken to the American people about the Libya exercise," added prominent liberal columnist and author Michael Tomasky. "You're a president. You launch a war. Granted it's not much of a war. But you are sending Americans into a position where they might die. And you don't go on television and explain to the American people why you've made this decision?"

Reagan didn't only give an Oval Office address when he struck against Libya. He did it when he invaded Grenada, too. And the list of Oval Office addresses by subsequent presidents who initiated military action includes George H.W. Bush on Panama (Dec. 20, 1989), U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia (Aug. 8, 1990), the invasion of Kuwait (Jan. 16, 1991), the end of the Persian Gulf War (Feb. 27, 1991), and Somalia (Dec. 4, 1992).

President Clinton used formal Oval Office speeches to announce U.S. withdrawal from Somalia, why he was sending warships to Haiti (although they weren't there to fight) and three other times, including when he authorized an insignificant bombing attack against Afghanistan and Sudan after the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa.

Obama did make one statement, carried live by cable on March 18 to explain the decision by the U.N. Security Council to approve a no-fly zone in Libya. But this nine-minute soliloquy took place at 2:22 p.m. on a Friday afternoon before the bombs were falling.

Michael Tomasky is certainly right about putting American military personnel in danger -- two of the U.S. pilots who participated in the April 1986 bombing of Libya were killed - but that's only part of it.

The nation's prestige is now on the line in Libya, which means that all Americans, not just those in the armed forces, have a stake in Obama's decision. The president has said Gaddafi must step down and he committed U.S. military force against the military units that have remained loyal to the Libyan leader. Doesn't this imply that if Gaddafi manages to remain in power, the United States will have suffered a defeat? This is the kind of question the president has not even addressed, let alone answered.

"When it comes to foreign policy, the president traditionally owns the terrain," says presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar. "At the same time, from a practical standpoint he needs to inform the public and the Congress -- because there is little a president can do without the support of both. To acquire that support, he needs to appeal directly to them for it. Having surrogates explain a President's thinking is not an adequate replacement for explanatory words from the person who makes the decision. That is who everyone wants to hear from."

Exacerbating some of the frustration, Obama has been seen golfing, kicking a soccer ball in Brazil, and filling out his NCAA "March Madness" brackets in the weeks since Libya has exploded and while he has eschewed a formal address on the subject.

"I never thought I would hear Obama criticized for talking too little, but I am very surprised that he hasn't addressed the nation on Libya," said Ken Collier, a professor of government at Stephen F. Austin College in Texas. "I guess that's because of the way events unfolded there wasn't an obvious time to give a speech. However, I would have expected him to schedule something - and before the Sweet Sixteen round started Thursday."

In his own send-up, liberal satirist Jon Stewart, taking note that other presidents have never hesitated to explain themselves, no matter how dubious their reasoning, said this: "Mr. President, you don't even think enough of us to lie to us."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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