President Obama Cannot Lead from Behind on Public Opinion

A child sleeps as Iraqi Yazidis take refuge in Dohuk. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

A child sleeps as Iraqi Yazidis take refuge in Dohuk. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama’s speech last night in which he promised an aggressive response to ISIS came as a surprise to nobody. Stories of the murderous actions, and unforgettable images of beheadings, committed by ISIS in recent days has increased pressure on the President to do something. Obama’s speech was, among other things an attempt to move his “we don’t have a strategy” comment into the background. The speech promised all the right things for those who wanted to see a tough American response-air strikes, military advisors and doing whatever it takes to stop ISIS. Critics of the president, of course, will continue to argue that his response was late, weak (in promising no ground troops), and only came after domestic pressure.

Those critics may or may not be right, but supporters of the President might be even more disappointed. Here was the president who had promised to end wars and reposition the U.S. in the world, pledging the same responses to the same types of crises as almost all of his predecessors. Yesterday’s speech, in this regard, seemed like an angry shrug of the shoulders from the President as he decided to bomb, send advisors, and hope the unforeseen consequences are not too severe.

The fault here, however, lies firmly with the President himself. When Mr. Obama came into office, explicitly promising a U.S. that would be less interventionist and less anxious to solve all the world’s problems, particularly militarily, he had the support of the American people. In 2009, American public opinion supported this. That trend in public opinion had, in fact, helped elect President Obama in 2008. This view continued well into 2013, but probably due to conflicts in Ukraine and the vivid atrocities committed by ISIS has begun to reverse itself in recent weeks and months. This support among the public made it possible for the President to pursue a less aggressive foreign policy despite criticism from Republicans and even from within his own party for most of his presidency, but once public opinion changed Mr. Obama was in a much less comfortable position.

The President’s mistake was to take public support for his approach to foreign policy as a given rather than something that he needed to consolidate by building support for his vision of U.S. foreign policy that was less directly engaged with addressing the world’s crises. Thus, when public opinion finally changed, the President was politically unprepared. Mr. Obama’s failure to do this over the first six years of his presidency, despite occasional efforts, left him little choice in the face of growing pressure but to shift gears and give a speech about ISIS that other than having better syntax and pronunciation, could have been made by George W. Bush.

Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell