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

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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.

At bottom, Cheney's argument relies on the pernicious idea that if you disagree with him over the tactics used to fight the war on al-Qaida, you are fundamentally ignorant that a war is going on.For that reductive trick to work, Obama must play into the caricature of a weak-kneed liberal who rejects the notion that America is at war. There was nothing in Obama's speech or in his approach that obviously fits this caricature. Cheney can claim that Obama doesn't think there's a war going on, but it's hard to believe his claim when Obama is using the threat of ongoing war to explain his decision on Guantanamo. "Al-Qaida terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States," said Obama "and those that we capture—like other prisoners of war—must be prevented from attacking us again."

It's also hard to claim Obama is a coddler of terrorists when his recent decisions on Afghanistan, military commissions, and release of detainee photographs all seem rather pro-military. Indeed, on the left he's being accused of having been repeatedly rolled by the military. Now, the left may be wrong. But to gain purchase in the wider public debate, Cheney's argument relies on Obama being oblivious to the threat and impervious to arguments from the military and CIA. The president is clearly not oblivious. The argument has clearly not gained purchase.

It's also hard to sustain the claim that Obama is "blaming America first" when so much of Obama's speech was a paean to America's founding principles. (He delivered his speech in the rotunda of the National Archives, the permanent home of not only the Constitution but also the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.) The National Archives was closed for four hours for his speech. Obama never mentioned Cheney by name but claimed that those who hold Cheney's views were, while mistaken, "motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people." (In private, a senior administration official said Cheney was "monomaniacally focused on defending his legacy," fighting not just the current president but the battles he lost in the last two years of the Bush administration.)

Cheney took a darker view of Obama's motivations; one of his zingers was that "it's easy to receive applause in Europe." Touché: Cheney's speech may also win applause in certain circles, but it's not going to win converts to his point of view.

A senior administration official compared Obama's speech to the one he gave during his campaign about his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when he sought to tie a series of complicated and volatile issues into one large narrative. (The big pressure-relieving speech is almost something you can predict with this administration.) Though the issues Obama addressed have been percolating for weeks, the official said they felt a speech had to be given now because "things were getting out of hand." Obama brushed aside a suggestion that he give the speech Friday at the Naval Academy commencement, arguing that the subject would be a little heavy for midshipmen enjoying their moment. He worked on the speech late into the night, sending his aides the last big revision at 2:20 a.m.

Obama's speech was defensive at times, perhaps understandably. (He is being accused of making us vulnerable to attack, after all.) Even so, the president's references to the problems he inherited sometimes sound like a man shifting blame. Obama also repeatedly accused the other side of unnecessary fear-mongering—while he did a version of the same thing, arguing that Bush-era policies created more terrorists and made the country less safe. Regardless of the merits, if you're calling out the other guy for using the scary mood music of impending doom, you can't use it yourself.

Obama framed his speech in terms of the mess that he inherited from the Bush administration. But he is also dealing with the wrath of forces that he unleashed. The president patiently explains how complex these decisions are and complains about the "politicization of these issues," but as a candidate he benefited by obscuring the complexities. Now Obama is learning and demonstrating that governing is far more complex than campaigning. That evolution, and his effort to show people the reasoning behind his positions, may be his strongest argument against Cheney. In his speech, Cheney warned Obama to "think carefully about the course ahead." It may be the least necessary piece of advice the former vice president has ever given. Obama's speech is proof that Obama is treating these issues with painstaking care.

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