The greatest orator of his generation went to West Point a week ago to make his case to the country’s young warriors that he had made the world better by making his country’s presence less visible.
Few were impressed. The Washington Post said he was "tying America's hands." The National Journal said he was offloading his duties on to the rest of the world, which did not seem to want them. The New York Times said he was dithering.
The charge was that he was forming a doctrine for a world without problems, which doesn't yet seem to exist. "Even if it were about the real world, it would be kind of ... pointless," opined Bill Kristol (editor of The Weekly Standard). "We are not weak, we are unreliable," John McCain said, making a distinction that eluded the president. For the first time in his life, Barack Obama, who talked his way into the Senate and White House, is in a pickle he can't talk his way out of, and a world he can't change with his words.
His speech here recalled his speech on health care in April, when, on the strength of 8 million people enrolled on his website, he claimed that war over, and said he had won.
Few people believed that one, either. Polls remained steady, people kept fighting, and soon enough it came out that some of these people had not made their payments, and only about 2 million or so had not been insured previously. (The rest were people who were kicked off their old policies and still seemed to be pretty mad.)
Clearly the claim he insured 8 million new people came out of the same bag as the claim he was "ending two wars" when in fact he was losing them, and that his non-actions in Syria and in Libya had been successes.
Calling his long list of choices "consistently bad," the Post had laid out a very long list of his follies: "Iraq has slid into something close to civil war, with al-Qaeda retaking territory that U.S. Marines once died to liberate. In Syria, al-Qaeda has carved out safe zones that senior U.S. officials warn will be used as staging grounds for attacks against Europe and the United States. Libya is falling apart."
"Obama may never recover from the one-two punch of [Bashar] Assad's crossing the president's 'red line' and [Vladimir] Putin's incursion into Crimea," wrote the National Journal's James Oliphant. "It is hard not to think about Putin and Assad while considering the Wednesday speech." NBC's Richard Engel said that he couldn't name one country with whom relations had improved since George W. Bush had left office, that relations with Europe had become a lot worse, and that Obama's series of rapid retreats created a "vortex of instability" in critical places.
And words can do nothing for that.
"Just words!" Obama said late in the 2008 campaign, when people complained that his speeches lacked substance, invoking the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and others to prove words could, and did, change the world.
Many words did, and Obama used his words to alter political history when he got himself elected president, and especially when he used one speech in particular to dig himself out of a scandal concerning his preacher who threatened to sink his campaign. But his words then were either vague or hitched to the future, while his words now are connected to facts that dispute their meaning.
And he's at a loss now for words.Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."