President Obama's short Oval Office speech on Sunday night had many political purposes. But as the speech began, it seemed clear that the first goal was to strike a delicate balance: to say something acknowledging "radical Islam" while simultaneously challenging the politics of fear. I could be proven wrong, but as someone who's read many speechwriter memos, I could see something like this passing through the hands of communications staff: "The president has to respond to critiques who claim he won't denounce 'radical Islam' ... but without setting up a more intense response than we are prepared to roll out."
Obama's presidency has been characterized by both major policy and political change and tense, inert political standoffs. This, in addition to the fact that, like, it's still going on, has made the Obama presidency somewhat difficult to pin down. As I've written before, I think a useful lens for understanding what Obama has and has not been able to do is to think of him as a "third way" president in the cycle of political time. As explained at greater length here by the original author of the theory (and in shorter form here and here by me), this generally means that it's difficult for these leaders, who come to office when the other party dominates, to define their actions. They have to carve out their own political identities rather than relying on transformational leaders from the past (think FDR for Kennedy and Johnson, Reagan for recent Republicans). As a result, their character often forms an important basis of their presidencies, whether it's an even-handed general like Eisenhower, or a highly impeachable type like Clinton or Nixon. Or a president whose political and religious allegiances are constantly questioned. Obama's identity as a third-way president was really on display last night. His remarks responded to questions about character, toughness, and willingness to call out violent ideologies associated with Islam. At the same time, they also represented a third-way approach to the situation in the Middle East, without full-scale intervention but with firm statements about defeating ISIS through airstrikes and other tactics.
The president also addressed gun control in his remarks about what Congress should do, suggesting that no one who appears on a no-fly list should be able to buy a gun. This statement will probably satisfy people who wanted to see something to "draw the American people together," as noted in a CNN segment that reminded me why I usually avoid the pundit pregame. As a line in a speech, it's a clever third-way move. But it's unlikely to persuade anyone, particularly the constituents of members of Congress who urge opposition to the president's agenda. Instead, the gun control issue represents an example where Obama can perhaps define his — and his party's — stance and place the issue in new ideological context. In other words, he has room to shape the terms of debate. But he can't bring about major change unilaterally, or make Congress pass a bill with the power of magic words.
This is the opposite of security policy. There's quite a bit the president can do unilaterally (even if the constitutionality is sometimes iffy). But where Obama keeps running into trouble is his ability to define the action he wants to take. He can't do enough to satisfy his hawk critics, and many of his decisions about airstrikes have vexed the liberals who elected him. Furthermore, the Democrats have relied on process ideas like working with allies and scaling back executive unilateralism (oops), instead of developing a clear foreign policy ideology to match those offered by Republicans.
The early commentary I watched suggested that Obama's job was to reassure the nation. But before any reassurance can happen, the president has to define the problem and its solution. The larger context of Obama's presidency make that even more difficult than we might imagine.