Let’s just be honest: President Barack Obama was using the hallowed Oval Office setting to ignite the sparks of national confidence and unity. The speech Sunday night was a dud. Setting aside the dopey podium that destroyed the effect, the truth is that there is no national unity — ISIS or ISIL or Daesh, or whatever you want to call those maniacal fanatics, has induced an increased edginess in this country and has exposed a complete lack of common purpose that has allowed us to fall victim to the bald ambition of shameless politicians.
This was less rallying than tallying the now-familiar methodical Obama strategies and policy prescriptions: no boots on the ground, he continued to declare, although Sen. Marco Rubio and others in the opposition agitate for that. He once again called for the tightening of gun-control laws, even though the GOP Senate just rejected an obvious one that would deny those on the terror watch list a legal right to buy lethal weapons.
And he pleaded for Americans to avoid panicky oppressive actions targeting Muslims: “It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose.” Unfortunately, we’ve already traveled far down that road. On the same day the president spoke, the leading GOP candidate, Donald Trump, was defending his demand that followers of Islam and mosques be singled out for surveillance, insisting on “Face the Nation” that: “You have people that have to be tracked. If they’re Muslims, they’re Muslims. But you have people that have to be tracked. And we’ve better be — I use the word ‘vigilance.’ We have to show vigilance. We have to have it. And if we don’t, we’re foolish people.”
By that reasoning, we should be spying on Christians, since so many mass murders have been done in Christianity’s name. For that matter, perhaps all of us who use Facebook, Twitter and the rest should be suspects, since ISIS has come up with such a successful recruiting program using social media. Obviously those are ridiculous, but no more so than targeting millions who adhere to the Islamic faith.
Part of the problem is that we’ve been conditioned to expect each story to quickly lay out a beginning, a middle and an end. In real life, the most grotesque tragedies take years to resolve. Often the nonfiction drama defies quick analysis, and certainly the rapid-fire sound bites so much in favor with candidates trying to get attention. In this case, the insane group that is now frightening us was allowed to fill a vacuum we had created over generations. But now there is the usual pressure to end the threat suddenly. It won’t happen.
Even the interim solutions have flaws. In their effort to reassure us, law-enforcement leaders recommend: “If you see something, say something.” See what? Say what? To whom? Do most of us want to make life a nightmare for someone who leaves his suitcase for a moment, or worse, has the wrong ethnic appearance? I say “most” because there are some who would take delight in doing just that, either because they are haters or simply busybodies.
In any case, there was the president, attempting to use the power of the Oval Office to send a message, but the message was that we’re not all that powerful. That is understandably making all of us very nervous. Whether it’s at the hands of religious extremists or those who are simply murderously insane, we’re vulnerable. President Obama was trying to reason with Americans, many of whom are just not reasonable right now. They prefer the simple-minded demagoguery of a Trump or others who would become our leaders.
Following his address, the president showed his ability for compartmentalization by leaving the White House for the show-business Kennedy Center Honors. He also faced a big question: Why had he even bothered with the speech in the Oval Office?
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.