In 1775, when colonists debated in the Virginia Assembly whether to mobilize forces against the British, Patrick Henry decided the argument when he stood up and said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
In 1940, when Winston Churchill explained Great Britain’s war policy he said: “You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.”
In his first inaugural address, when Franklin Roosevelt needed to calm and inspire an America deeply mired in the Great Depression, he said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
When Ronald Reagan went to the Brandenburg Gate at the height of the Cold War he said: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
On Wednesday night, when President Barack Obama explained our strategy for combating ISIS he said … what?
When strong leaders must explain important policy decisions they somehow seem to find inspiring words that stay with you, that sometimes resonate through history.
Like most Americans, I voted for Obama and support the fundamentals of the three-point ISIS strategy that he laid out Wednesday night.
But having watched the speech, and read it three times, I remain dumbfounded by his inability — with all his speechwriters—to come up with a single inspiring sentence that could explain our policy, that could define the threat ISIS poses or that could state our resolve and ability to eliminate that threat.
If there was ever a speech that called for a clear battle cry, this was it. Forget the politics, forget the diplomatic niceties. We watched Americans beheaded. We watched the most frightening terrorist group ever imagined massacring and raping its way through the Middle East. As an American and as a speechwriter I am astounded that our President could not rise to the occasion, could not seize the moment, could not find the words that could stir us, that could make us mad, that could overcome our political differences and get behind a clear, simple, workable strategy.
It is ridiculous to argue that important policy decisions should be presented with broad, carefully crafted statements that can offend no one, commit us to nothing, and cover the government’s ass. But that, basically, is what Obama did on Wednesday.
When the American President stands in front of the cameras to deliver an important policy address we aren’t looking for statesmanship. We’re looking for one of those great Hollywood moments like, “I’m not going to take it anymore!”
When you’ve got what Teddy Roosevelt called “the bully pulpit” you’d better be able to sum up your strategy with a simple, clear, rousing phrase like, “Speak softly but carry a big stick.”
Obama knows how to give a great speech. It is one of the reasons we elected him in the first place. His constant failure to say anything inspiring or original or memorable is one of the most obvious disappointments of his presidency. I suppose, if we need to make excuses for him, we could blame his writers. He has access to some of the best in the business. But he is our president and as he keeps saying, “The buck stops here.”
With ISIS we are dealing with the most murderous, most dangerous terrorists the world has ever confronted. Vice President Joe Biden got it right when he said to them, “We will follow you to the gates of hell.”
So it is unfortunate that the president followed that with a cautious, uninspiring, uninteresting speech that was supposed to define how we would chase those terrorists to the gates of hell.
Words do matter. They always have. They always will. They give us what we need to feel motivated, to feel involved, to feel more American. It’s too bad that President Obama could not find the right words on Wednesday night.