Has the tongue turned? Obama explains his Libya attacks -- and his national security approval sinks
Is the Real Good Talker losing his famous talking touch, just as the Democrat opens a 19-month campaign for $1 billion and reelection?
Then-wannabe senator Barack Obama spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The dynamic duo of John Kerry and John Edwards lost the election anyway. But Obama emerged on the political scene as an articulate spokesman for the party's left side.
After his 2004 upset win over the political powerhouse of substitute Republican candidate Alan Keyes, the new senator from Illinois built on his speaking reputation to create an almost immediate presidential candidacy.
During the bitter 2008 Democratic primaries, party rival Hillary Clinton notoriously noted that Republican John McCain had a lifetime of public service on his resume and Obama had but an anti-Iraq war speech he gave in 2002. Obviously, Obama defeated both of them anyway.
Since moving into the White House he has often flown several hours on Air Force One with his ubiquitous Teleprompter to employ likely his best political skill, delivering speeches of varying duration before enthusiastic audiences. As adversities have accumulated -- the economy, unemployment, deficits, his controversial healthcare legislation, lack of a fiscal 2011 federal budget and now three wars -- that once formidable strength now seems possibly neutralized.
Obama will surely give hundreds more speeches before Nov. 6, 2012, when voters decide if he becomes only the third Democratic president in nearly a century to win a second election. Or if he joins Jimmy Carter in the ranks of one-termers.
But Obama's most recent major speech, the one on Libya last week, may provide an intriguing ....
... window into a shifting scenario that could affect the political fate of a confident politician who has yet to meet a problem he couldn't out-talk.
Last week, after strangely waiting 10 days after ordering U.S. forces into a third Middle Eastern combat arena, Obama delivered a much-anticipated speech to explain to many puzzled people how helping to dump a distant dictator in power for four decades was suddenly in America's urgent interests.
The president gave it before a friendly audience at Washington's National Defense University. And, as usual, The Ticket published the complete text right here.
Obama's main claim was that by blowing up Kadafi vehicles and personnel, U.S. and allied planes and missiles were preventing the bloodshed of anti-Kadafi civilians. And although the action was not authorized by Congress, the president said he'd told them about the assault and it had United Nations approval, and the U.S. wouldn't be involved long in the lead.
Obama presented himself and the nation as "naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges." He added:
Some question why America should intervene at all -- even in limited ways -- in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing concerns here at home.
It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -- Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale.
Initial reactions noted Obama never really did explain how intervening in Libya's humanitarian crisis was in the national interest, as opposed to an admirable humanitarian interest, while not protecting threatened civilians in Syria, Darfur, North Korea, Iran and elsewhere was OK.
Now comes some polling data on Americans' collective reactions: In short, not good for the good talker. His speech didn't muster support. In fact, his approval on national security has fallen since he spoke.
A year ago, 45% of American voters rated the president positively on national security and 32% poorly.
After he attacked Libya but before he explained it, while he toured South America with his family, 43% of American voters gave President Obama positive marks for his handling of national security issues. Only about a third (34%) rated him poorly in that area.
However, after Obama explained himself and his decision, the numbers basically reversed: The good or excellent rating fell to 37%, while the poor grade jumped to 40%.
Obama's positive rating on national security is now the lowest since he took office.
Twenty-seven percent of American voters say Libya is important to our national interest. Nearly twice as many (48%) are now convinced that it isn't.
Other than that, Obama's tardy speech on Libya worked like a charm.
-- Andrew Malcolm
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Photos: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters (Allied bomb blasts pro-Kadafi forces in Libya); Dmitry Kostyukov / AFP / Getty Images (Russians protest Obama's military attack on Libya); Charles Dharapak / Associated Press (Obama speaks on Libya, March 28).