Obama tries to show that America can have a thoughtful war president.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 21 2009 6:49 PM

A War He Can Believe In

Obama tries to show that America can have a thoughtful war president.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

On Thursday, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney both spoke about the war against terrorists. Obama spoke to America's ideals, literally if not figuratively, delivering his speech in the building that houses the Constitution. Cheney spoke from a bunker, figuratively if not literally, holding forth in a roomful of conservative partisans. How this debate plays out politically will depend on where the American people find themselves.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Cheney's bunker was actually at the American Enterprise Institute, but early in his defense of the Bush administration's policies, he returned to that moment on 9/11 when he was hurried in to the White House basement. His message today was, essentially, protection at all costs. "There is no middle ground," he said. "Half measures leave you half exposed." The former vice president spoke for nearly 45 minutes and attacked many targets—Democrats, the press, Speaker Nancy Pelosi—but his central point was that President Obama has left America exposed.

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There's a saying in politics that if you're explaining, you're losing—and by that calculus, Cheney might seem to have the upper hand. Cheney's speech was all offense: Obama has made us vulnerable to an attack. It's up to him to explain why that's not so. And then, with every argument Obama makes for why the situation is more nuanced than Cheney suggests, Cheney can portray Obama as legalistic, parsing, and weak. (Cheney played on this notion when he joked about Obama's speech having gone on for so long, although Cheney's remarks were only a few minutes shorter than Obama's 49-minute speech.)

The president embraced his complex task in a 6,500-word speech in which he carefully walked his audience through his own attempt to balance national security with American values. He had to defend his policies against two flanks: liberals who said he had not gone far enough in repudiating and undoing Bush administration policies and conservatives who said he had gone too far.

And if Cheney had simplicity on his side, there is also a political consideration that favors Obama: People don't want to look back, as Cheney asked them to. Obama didn't ignore the past, but the momentum of his speech was on the future—how to build a sustainable national security structure for the post-9/11 era.

The simple passage of time also favors Obama. The country is no longer in the bunker. People have seen the cost of Cheney's single-minded ways. Cheney suggested the only measurement of whether his approach was effective was whether the United States has been attacked again. This is a strong piece of evidence, and one he can boast about. But it's not the only measure people use to evaluate Bush-era policies.

AP Video: President Obama Calls Guantánamo "a Mess"

The Cheney mindset also launched the Iraq war. Americans still don't like the Iraq war. People think America shouldn't have gone to war and that it made the country less safe.  This view was ratified at least in part in the last election. The country, and more importantly the courts (including the Supreme Court), agree that a balance must be found between preventing an attack and protecting our values.

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