Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The President Again Tries to Right the Ship

Still searching for the proper tone in the wake of the Paris attacks, Obama held his third press conference in eight days.

With the coun­try shaken by the blood­shed in Par­is, nervous about at­tacks at home, and con­cerned about an in­flux of refugees from the Middle East, many pres­id­ents would take to the air­waves for a prime-time ad­dress to re­as­sure an anxious na­tion. But that is not Pres­id­ent Obama’s pre­ferred way to use the bully pul­pit.

In­stead, after a week out of the coun­try and out of sight for most Amer­ic­ans, Obama on Tues­day used his third press con­fer­ence in eight days to per­suade Amer­ic­ans it is safe to fol­low their daily routines and to re­as­sert his com­mand of the war against ter­ror­ism.

Bask­ing in praise from vis­it­ing French Pres­id­ent Fran­cois Hol­lande, who stood at an ad­join­ing lectern in the East Room, the Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent found him­self play­ing catch-up in the wake of the mul­tiple as­saults in Par­is and the rising in­tens­ity of the polit­ic­al cri­ti­cism com­ing from Re­pub­lic­ans on the cam­paign trail. So it was not sur­pris­ing that Obama pre­faced his open­ing state­ment by ex­plain­ing that it “will be a little longer than usu­al. I have been trav­el­ing, and this is an im­port­ant mo­ment for our na­tions and for the world.”

He eas­ily could have ad­ded: It is also an im­port­ant mo­ment for his pres­id­ency and his leg­acy.

It is un­usu­al for any pres­id­ent to use so many press con­fer­ences in such a short time to try to right the ship. And the ex­er­cise did not start out aus­pi­ciously for him. His meet­ing with re­port­ers in An­t­a­lya, Tur­key, on Nov. 16 was widely panned, as most crit­ics saw a de­fens­ive and testy pres­id­ent. By the time he next took ques­tions six days later, the pres­id­ent had more than found his equi­lib­ri­um.

Meet­ing re­port­ers in Ku­ala Lum­pur on Sunday, he was sure-footed and al­most elo­quent, talk­ing of the “beau­ti­ful, won­der­ful lives” lost in Par­is, flex­ing the muscle of a 65-na­tion co­ali­tion, and ap­peal­ing to the na­tion to rise above “pre­ju­dice and dis­crim­in­a­tion.” His theme was power­ful: “We do not suc­cumb to fear.” That, he said, is “the primary power that these ter­ror­ists have over us. They can­not strike a mor­tal blow against the United States, or against France. … But they can make people fear­ful. And that’s un­der­stand­able. …”

The big prob­lem for the White House is that al­most nobody in the United States saw this more con­fid­ent pres­id­ent—the press con­fer­ence took place 9,500 miles and 13 time zones away in Malay­sia. It was 1 a.m. on a week­end in Wash­ing­ton when the pres­id­ent spoke.

So Tues­day’s press con­fer­ence was the pres­id­ent’s third at­tempt to get it right, to ex­plain why his ap­proach to de­feat­ing the Is­lam­ic State ter­ror­ists is the way to go. That he op­ted against a prime-time ad­dress is not sur­pris­ing. Ac­cord­ing to num­bers kept by pres­id­en­tial his­tor­i­an Martha Joynt Ku­mar of Towson Uni­versity, it has been a year since his last prime-time ad­dress to the na­tion. That came on Nov. 20, 2014 from the Cross Hall of the White House, and dealt with im­mig­ra­tion.

“He can use oth­er for­ums, such as 60 Minutes, where he has a large audi­ence, par­tic­u­larly if he does it in the foot­ball sea­son,” said Ku­mar. Also, she noted, us­ing a morn­ing press con­fer­ence al­lows him to reach an in­ter­na­tion­al audi­ence out­side of the United States, where there are doubts about the al­lied strategy against IS­IS as well. “He will be seen in Europe in the early even­ing, and they wanted to reach that audi­ence as well,” ad­ded Ku­mar. “Since he is the lead­er of the co­ali­tion of al­lies, he needs to speak to that audi­ence as well as the Amer­ic­an one that is keen to hear from him now that he is in the United States.”

George Ed­wards III, pres­id­en­tial schol­ar at Texas A&M Uni­versity, told Na­tion­al Journ­al he is not sur­prised that Obama shunned the flashy prime-time show in this in­stance. “The pres­id­ent knows what works. He is not go­ing to con­vince a lot of people go­ing on prime time. There would be high ex­pect­a­tions and low im­pact.” Prime time is more con­du­cive for pres­id­ents try­ing to sell spe­cif­ic ac­tions.

“Here, the pres­id­ent doesn’t have a dra­mat­ic plan to of­fer,” said Ed­wards. “He is not go­ing to an­nounce he is send­ing the 82nd Air­borne in to clear out IS­IS. He is not go­ing to an­nounce that, so it would be pretty in­cre­ment­al stuff, and that is more dif­fi­cult to ex­plain.”

But Ed­wards said the pres­id­ent still needs to find a bet­ter way to rally sup­port for his an­ti­ter­ror­ism policy and to ad­dress a na­tion rattled by the Par­is at­tacks. “Re­as­sur­ance is use­ful, and that’s what people are look­ing for right now re­gard­ing ter­ror­ism,” he said. “They are nervous. They are skit­tish. And they are look­ing for re­as­sur­ance. I don’t think it would hurt him to of­fer the re­as­sur­ance of how the gov­ern­ment is pro­tect­ing its people.”

And neither press con­fer­ences in Tur­key and Ku­ala Lum­pur in the dark of the night nor one in Wash­ing­ton be­fore noon reached big enough audi­ences to truly an­swer the ques­tions about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to Par­is. So the White House is left with the daunt­ing chal­lenge of find­ing more ways to talk louder than the anti-Obama ca­co­phony com­ing from the Re­pub­lic­an cam­paigns, and to an­swer the quieter ques­tions of so many Amer­ic­ans.