Is Obama getting tougher on Iran?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 23 2009 6:59 PM

"Appalled and Outraged"

Is Obama getting tougher on Iran?

Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House.
Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House

I will not begin a piece with a pretentious literary quote. Meanwhile, F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. By this measure, President Obama was first-rate at his press conference Tuesday afternoon. He escalated his rhetoric about the violence in Iran but insisted he hadn't changed his posture. He claimed to be outside the 24-hour news cycle while simultaneously manipulating it.

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.

Obama's supporters will call this performance evidence of an admirably supple mind. His detractors will call it slipperiness.

The president started the press conference with his strongest denunciation of the violence in Iran to date. In his opening remarks, he said the United States was "appalled and outraged" and that "we deplore the violence against innocent civilians." Switching to the first person, he continued, "I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost."

This is the strong stuff the president's critics have been calling for. In the nine days since the government of Iran started cracking down on its people, Obama has been reluctant, arguing that if he meddled, he would become a foil for the authoritarian regime. In response to the beatings and shootings in the street, he said he was "deeply troubled" and "concerned," but no more. This weekend he called on the Iranian authorities to stop the violence, but his language contained no new admonition.

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Today, he not only upped his rhetoric, he reacted personally, talking about the "searing image of a woman bleeding to death in the streets," a reference to the so-called Neda video. He called the loss "extraordinarily painful" and "heartbreaking."

In recent days, Obama has quoted the expression Martin Luther King Jr. made popular: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." When he cited this quote during his presidential campaign, he asked voters to put their hand on the arc to help it bend. Until now he has said the United States stood "witness" to the events in Iran. Now he has put his hand on the arc.

Why the change? The president bristled at the mere suggestion that it was a change. Yet his press secretary had gone on the morning news shows to preview Obama's new "stern words," the White House had them translated into Persian, and still the president maintained that he'd said nothing new. "I've been consistent all along," he said. It's true that he reiterated his previous noninterventionist position—he did not challenge the legitimacy of the election or withdraw his offer to engage with Iranian leaders. But the language was new.

Obama laughed at the notion that his critics like John McCain had pushed him into a stronger position. "I just made a statement on Saturday in which we said we deplore the violence," he said. But the president's statement on Saturday contains no such tough language.

The president also answered several health care questions. He made it very clear, as he always has, that he wants Congress to present him with a plan that doesn't increase the deficit. "This is legislation that must and will be paid for," he said. He repeatedly returned to this point, perhaps an acknowledgement of the public's fears about growing deficits.

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