Sunday, December 6 – a day before the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack – is no date that will live in infamy. But it may be remembered by historians as the date the 44th U.S. President tried to allay the growing fears of a nation and talk tough against terror.
Sunday night, President Barack Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office. Dispensing with the fuzzy rhetoric of “degrading” terrorist groups, Obama last night vowed to “destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”
He unambiguously tagged last week’s shooting in San Bernadino an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people, and spoke against what he called a perverted form of Islam.
“Here’s what I want you to know. The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” Obama said.
It was his toughest language yet from the oval office – a setting used by past presidents for moments of high consequence, many of which are now remembered as turning points in the modern American narrative.
Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, George Bush, Sr., Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all took to the bully pulpit from the office to address the nation during times of national uneasiness.
Sunday night’s address was only the third time the Oval Office has been used by President Obama – a point hardly lost on historian and author H.W. Brands, senior chair in history at the University of Texas at Austin. He says whether Sunday night’s speech was a turning point depends on what happens next.
“Presidential speeches are not important in and of themselves, they’re important for what they signify and what follows,” Brands says. “If in fact, there is a more concerted campaign against ISIS and if it leads to success then people, historians like me, will look back on this and say this is the moment when things changed.”
One of the striking things about this speech was that Obama tried to reassure Americans, while also talking tough against terrorism, Brands says. But he didn’t announce anything knew, Brand says.
“[Obama said] first of all that… the Executive Branch, the government of the United States was taking all actions necessary to defend them,” Brands says. “This was not like Franklin Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor. [Then,] it was really clear to what to do. What is happening [now] is very different than what has gone before.”
Brands says Obama had to do two things to calm fears against terrorism and ISIS for the American people.
“He had to sound tough and aggressive against ISIS, but at the same time he had to tell Americans that they really didn’t have that much to fear,” Brands says. “That’s a tough one. When you’re trying to rev up the nation for a war effort – then you do want to sound the alarm. But, on the other hand this is not a war, and he made very clear that he doesn’t intend to put troops on the ground.”
Obama is caught between, Brand says, “to sound the alarm but not sound alarmist.”
After the address, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro tweeted surprise that even though the major TV networks cut away for the president last night, there was no analysis afterwards, and shows went back to regularly scheduled programming.