“Moral outrage,” conservative leader Morton Blackwell teaches, “is the most powerful motivating force in politics. And in making the case for war in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power have made the moral case for standing up against the use of chemical weapons.
But President Barack Obama has (so far) failed to channel this same emotional force. Instead, his remarks have been somewhere between “Spock-like” emotionally removed and tepid. This is a problem.
“He was not thundering from the top of the moral ramparts,” observed Maureen Dowd (regarding Obama’s comments to the press in St. Petersburg.) “He made his usual nuanced, lawyerly presentation, talking about the breach of international ‘norms.’ It’s a weak, wonk word.
“Norms,” Dowd declared, “don’t send people to the barricades.”
For those of us who think intervention is a mistake, we can be happy for that. The down side of inspiring speeches is that they lead to people getting swept up in emotional fervor. They sometimes lead us do what feels right instead of what is right. But if Obama wants to sell this military intervention (as he says he does), he will at least need to act as if he believes in it.
To be sure, some people like Obama’s style. My bloggingheads sparring partner Bill Scher is one of them. When I made this point on Twitter, Scher shot back, insisting that Obama’s tone “conveys reassuring pragmatism & not rash emotion.” But I would argue that while inspiring rhetoric can sometimes lead to mistakes, it is also a vital part of leadership — and, ironically, one that Obama might have excelled at.
Churchill’s rhetoric helped sustain the British people’s resolve during their darkest hour, Reagan’s rhetoric and moral clarity (“Evil Empire,” “tear down this wall!,” helped marshal the support to assign Soviet Communism to the dustbin of history. Don’t tell me words don’t matter.
The bottom line is this: Obama clearly can’t bring himself to fake it. If he’s not utterly convinced this is the right move, then why should we be? I’m interested to see how his big speech goes.