Coming up on his final year in office, the president’s mind is doubtless on his legacy. More, perhaps, than other presidents had been when they were running out the string. Obama is something of a literary man, after all, having published a best-selling memoir before his election. He is accustomed to shaping his own story.
So, he does long interviews with a friendly journalist in which he compares himself to the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback. Same coolness and composure under stress:
“Rodgers in the pocket, in the sense of you can't be distracted by what's around you, you've got to be looking downfield. And I think that's a quality that I have — not getting flustered in what's around me.”
But the president lost his cool, in public, after the terrorist attack in Paris, at a press conference where he answered questions about his strategy in coping with ISIS impatiently and sarcastically. He was plainly flustered. And angry.
“[W]hat I do not do,” he said, in answer to one question, “is to take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough, or make me look tough. And maybe part of the reason is because every few months I go to Walter Reed, and I see a 25-year-old kid who’s paralyzed or has lost his limbs, and some of those are people I’ve ordered into battle. And so I can’t afford to play some of the political games that others may.
“We’ll do what’s required to keep the American people safe. And I think it’s entirely appropriate in a democracy to have a serious debate about these issues. If folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan. If they think that somehow their advisors are better than the Chairman of my Joint Chiefs of Staff and the folks who are actually on the ground, I want to meet them. And we can have that debate. But what I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning, or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and to protect our allies and people like France. I’m too busy for that.”
Well, presidential self-pity is unattractive even if the president isn’t beguiled by his own coolness. But the president had been known to answer questions with a bit of snark and to set up straw men for demolition and to let us all know that he works hard and bears a heavy burden of responsibility.
This press conference, however, showed more pique than Obama had previously displayed. It was not so much out of character as a distillation of it. Pure Obama. Perhaps he was stressed by a sense that his legacy was slipping out of his control. That events were in the saddle and he was in for a hard ride. He had said to an interviewer, just a few hours before the Paris massacre, that ISIS had been “contained.” His aides quickly discovered nuance in the President’s words. He was talking about “territory,” not influence, don’t you see. But it seems he is stuck with “contained,” in the same way he has never been able to shake off, Aaron Rodgers style, his crack about how ISIS was the “jayvee” team in the terrorism league.
Now, with the Paris attack and the sabotaging of a Russian airliner, ISIS had put the world on notice. If this was war – and both the French and Russians said it was – then ISIS was plainly winning. The war had begun with Obama in the White House and it had metastasized until it had ruined Syria and ISIS had declared a caliphate. Everything that the Obama administration attempted in way of resisting the expansion of ISIS failed. Still, the president said, before and after the Paris attacks, that he had “the right strategy.”
It was never clear exactly what that strategy is. But it is now exceedingly clear that it is not working. The U.S. is losing a war that it is fighting without conviction. The president doesn’t seem inclined to do any of the things that his critics say would change the dynamic of the war. No ground troops or “no-fly” zones. Just more of the same. More dead and more refugees; more enemy threats and, possibly, more attacks like the one on Paris.
To be losing a war through ineptitude and losing it to an ad hoc nation you have labeled the “jayvee” …this recalls the way Lyndon Johnson was humiliated by what he called a “damn little pissant country.” He knew the war in Vietnam was ruining his legacy as heir to Roosevelt, his Great Society continuing what the FDR’s New Deal had begun. But people would not remember Lyndon Johnson for that. His legacy would be a war that came apart in his last year in office.