The Atlantic's Peter Beinart, who was far less critical of the speech, suggested in his response that Obama is confident in his approach to ISIS, which he doesn't consider an existential threat:
... [Obama] considers violent jihadism a small, toxic strain within Islamic civilization, not a civilization itself. And unlike Bush, he doesn’t consider it a serious ideological competitor....I'm not sure I heard what Beinart heard in the speech. The president said that the U.S. government ihas improved its ability to prevent complex plots like 9/11, although simpler plots are still a threat -- but to me he didn't convey any great satisfaction at that. He says the current strategy will "achieve a more sustainable victory" -- but the allusion to the "steps I and future Presidents must take to keep our country safe" suggests that he doesn't think victory is coming anytime soon. I didn't hear the speech as reassuring; I heard it as realistic. The president wanted us to know that steps are being taken and that they're blunting the impact of what ISIS is trying to do. But it's going to take a while.
While Republicans think ISIS is strong and growing stronger, Obama thinks it’s weak and growing weaker. “Terrorists,” he declared on Sunday, now “turn to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society.” In other words, the Islamic State probably can’t do anything to America that we Americans aren’t doing to ourselves all the time, and now largely take for granted.
Obama also argued that the Islamic State is losing in the Middle East, where the “strategy that we are using now -- air strikes, special forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country” will produce a “sustainable victory.”
At this point in his presidency, Obama speaks with only one tone, the slightly exasperated and sometimes not-merely-slightly exasperated “adult in the room” who constantly has to correct his fellow Americans, who are always flying off the handle, calling for options that “aren’t who we are,” betraying our values, and so on. He’s always so disappointed in us.I disagree I think the president was -- probably naively -- hoping that he was speaking to fellow adults, people who, if there's reason for hope in the long run, can tolerate some bad news. As I said yesterday, I fear that the American people want just the opposite from him: They want fist-pumping, rally-'round-the-flag talk and empty promises that we'll lay waste to ISIS before you know it. He's doesn't believe in that message, so that's not what he said. He said:
My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.This strikes me as similar to one of his favorite sayings: The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
The speech reminded me of Obama's first inaugural, which also surprised a lot of people with its somber tone:
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many -- and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.Obama can give a rousing, rallying speech when he wants to. He didn't want to last night -- and yet he clearly hopes Americans will stay strong and not lose heart. Unfortunately, they may not be capable of that if they're not given the rah-rah talk and get the crowd-pleasing actions they crave.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.