President Obama Dogged by Credibility Gap
Ronald Reagan was considered a truth-teller by most Americans, including Ronald Reagan himself, but in his second term the 40th U.S. president faced a credibility gap. At issue were his inaccurate statements relating to trading arms for hostages in what became the Iran-contra scandal. For damage control, the administration tapped the talents of an American original named David Abshire.
“Doctor Abshire,” as he liked to be called—he’d earned a PhD in history at Georgetown—was a West Point graduate, former Korean War platoon leader, and co-founder of Washington’s non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. He had served every postwar Republican president in some capacity and would go on to head the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
What Abshire learned during his time in service he distilled into a single phrase: “Trust,” he often said, “is the coin of the realm.” It was even the subtitle of his book on how he helped restore Reagan’s reputation.
Abshire died last year at age 88 after a good long life. But he went too soon, by which I mean that we could use him right about now. This is especially true of President Obama.
Two days before the San Bernardino mass murders, I was a guest on a call-in show on Wisconsin Public Radio. It’s an arm of NPR, so the callers were, let’s just say, decidedly left of center. One mentioned “the Koch brothers” in tones one might reserve for “Nazi Party.” A second caller alluded casually to the “discredited and doctored” Planned Parenthood tapes; a third mumbled something about deporting “white Christians.”
The most sensible-sounding interlocutor was a self-described conservative who says he accepts the fact of global warming—and human responsibility for it—but has trouble accepting anything at face value proposed by Barack Obama in the way of a solution. Why? Because Obama has a credibility gap with this man, who cited the president’s assurances while lobbying for the Affordable Care Act that Americans who already had health insurance could keep their plans and their doctors. The caller also mentioned the administration’s spurious assertions about the 2012 killing of four Americans in Benghazi.
Comparing health care and Benghazi to climate change policy seems a non sequitur. But as David Abshire could attest, they aren’t. A president’s credibility is fungible, and if voters conclude their commander-in-chief misleads them for partisan advantage about one thing, they assume he does it about others. Many Obama critics are convinced that the reason top administration officials, including Hillary Clinton, tied themselves into rhetorical pretzels while dissembling over Benghazi is that the specter of al-Qaeda commandos torching a U.S. consulate and murdering Americans directly undermined the president’s campaign-year slogan “Osama is dead, al-Qaeda is on the run.”
Deep into his second term, Obama has continued his habit of sounding dismissive about facts that don’t fit his party’s narrative. He flippantly described the Islamic State as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team.” Hours before the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, Obama airily asserted that ISIS has been “contained.” Even afterward he said he didn’t “want to speculate” on who perpetrated them or why—despite reports of the gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “This is for Syria” as they slaughtered innocent people.
Many Americans, not all of them Republicans, can’t understand Obama’s reluctance to use the word “Islamic” in connection with these attacks—even though “Islamic” is in ISIS’s title. A clue to his stubbornness is that the president won’t even say “ISIS.” He insists of calling the group “ISIL,” which was an early transliteration of the Arabic name for the group, but which it has since dropped. Obama pronounces this acronym “Issel,” as though it’s less likely to give offense that way.
He continues to underestimate the group and its underlying ideology. In a CBS interview Wednesday, before San Bernardino became a killing ground, Obama said this: “ISIL will not pose an existential threat to us. They are a dangerous organization like al-Qaeda was, but we have hardened our defenses. The American people should feel confident that…we are going to be able to defend ourselves and make sure that, you know, we have a good holiday and go about our lives.”
After the attacks, the president and his allies tried to shoehorn the facts into a gun control narrative. In one sense this was predictable; it’s also jarring. The predictable part is that restricting access to firearms and ammunition is the public policy prescription that Obama and his party have embraced. Whatever your views on the Second Amendment, this approach was logical after Sandy Hook and some other mass shootings that have taken place during his White House tenure.
It made less sense after Chattanooga, where a self-radicalized jihadist immigrant with drug problems and mental health issues attacked U.S. military recruiting facilities, killing four United States Marines and a Navy sailor. At least one U.S. senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, thought the moral of the story was that bans on active duty military being armed on such bases should be repealed.
And the gun control argument seemed utterly out of place in the context of San Bernardino. A married couple devoted to ISIS, one of them a recent immigrant from Saudi Arabia, killed 14 co-workers of the husband, wounded 21 others, planted a remote-control pipe bomb designed to kill first responders, including medical personnel. They then tried to escape, apparently planning to use their arsenal—including 12 more bombs—elsewhere. If anything, these facts would make many Americans want to buy firearms, and look askance at Obama’s plan to resettle refugees from the country where ISIS began.
Yet only the most anti-Obama partisan wouldn’t have felt some sympathy for him when a weary-looking president addressed this issue in the White House on Thursday. It was the 18th time he’d spoken about mass shootings in his 83 months in office. According to a National Journal tally, there have been 21 such incidents since he took office.
This country confronts a series of problems under the broad rubric of public safety: mass shootings, overseas-inspired Islamic terrorism, rapidly spiking everyday gun violence, and a spate of police brutality cases, disproportionately committed against people of color.
It’s the president’s responsibility to unpack these issues one at a time, communicate his ideas about them with the public, building political coalitions and consensus where he can. It may be impossible; perhaps the country (and the world) are simply ungovernable at this point in human history. But it’s certainly not possible for a president to make progress if he doesn’t try—and if he isn’t honest with himself or the public. Trust is still the coin of the realm.