Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

In these tricky days especially, he surely needs to drop the cool act

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Here’s my theory  about why some  crazy cats scaled both towers of the Brooklyn Bridge in the wee hours of Tuesday and replaced the American flags atop them with two white ones, their stars and stripes bleached out but still just visible.

They were sending a message about America’s standing in the world.

Probably rubbish – it could just be art – but you know where I am coming from. Here's what people are asking: what was it about his winning the Nobel Peace Prize within six minutes of taking office that made President Barack Obama go so tepid on foreign policy?

The question became urgent last September when Mr Obama backed away from striking the Syrian regime  for using chemical weapons. When  Isis stormed through northern Iraq the White House responded by sending advisers to Baghdad. Even relations  with allies have been neglected. (It’s why Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was dispatched on an emergency repair  mission to Berlin this week.)

It gets worse for Mr Obama if we start  the comparison game. Contrast his  mostly clunky statements on the loss of MH17 a week ago to the 18-minutes of  video you can find on YouTube of Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation after the downing of Korean Airlines 007 by the Soviets in 1988.

“And it looks like it may be a terrible tragedy,” Mr Obama said last Thursday  a few hours after the incident. Looks  like it may?

Mr Reagan didn’t do clunky. “Make no mistake about it, this attack was not just against ourselves or the Republic of Korea,” he said, staring at the camera in the Oval Office. “This was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an  act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life.”

Twice in the past seven days, I’ve seen Samantha Power, the US envoy to the UN, take aim at Russia at the Security Council and verbally lacerate the rebels Moscow supports in eastern Ukraine.

Clearly she writes her own speeches: “As we stared at the passenger list  yesterday we saw next to three of the passengers names a capital “I.” As we  now know, the letter “I” stands for infant,” she said last Friday. On Monday, she  evoked the sound of debris “crunching” under the feet of separatists marauding through the crash site.

It remains possible that what we  see now as limpness in the Oval Office  will be judged by history as wise restraint. My guess is that Mr Obama cares little  what people are saying about Vladimir  Putin laughing at him for being weak.  He prefers a long game and cares only  about getting the right end results. No Drama Obama.

And he has a deep sense of history. He hasn’t forgotten the USS Vincennes.

America is justified in its indignation at what happened in the skies above Ukraine, but what happened in the  Straits of Hormuz 26 years ago surely  gives reason for pause. When the  surface-to-air missile launched from the deck of the Vincennes struck the Iran  Air Airbus as it climbed to cruising  altitude posing no threat to US forces whatsoever, it extinguished the lives of  all 290 people on board. That’s eight  people fewer than on MH17. Is there some kind of criminal equivalency here, if separated by decades?

Mr Obama often warns against getting ahead of the facts and there is still murk about who actually fired at the Malaysian airliner. And he can’t get too far ahead of Europe either.  If he has been limp on Mr Putin, the Europeans, let’s face it, have been plain flaccid.

Nor does it tell us much to hold  up him up against his predecessors.  Mr Reagan was resting at his California ranch when 007 was shot down in Soviet airspace and it took several  days for aides to persuade him that  the incident warranted his return  to Washington.

 

All that said, in the past days Mr Obama has surely flunked the presidential “optics” test. The day the plane went down, he carried on with his pre-set schedule, going to Delaware to deliver a speech about repairing bridges and roads and then proceeding to two fundraising events  in New York City. This Tuesday he  again left Washington for three more  days of fundraising in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

At one of those events on Tuesday night, at a private home in Seattle, he said he realised that Americans were “anxious” because of so many things  going wrong at once overseas. “Part of people’s concern is just the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding,” he said, according to a White House transcript.

We know Mr Obama can be as eloquent as Ms Power and there is reason to hope he isn’t nearly as hapless on the world stage as he sometimes appears. But in these tricky days especially, he surely needs to drop the cool act.

Give us some presidential theatrics even just for the sake of it and even if  it goes against your better nature. Go on TV in the Oval Office. Fulminate a little. Because, yes, your country is anxious. That things are out of control. That no one listens to America any more. That the star and stripes are fading out.

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