I don’t think we should ever minimize the political value of carefully bridled contempt. The president — who can, his attorney-general has said, pretty much kill anyone he wants, anywhere — held a press conference on (Super) Tuesday afternoon in which most of the questions were about the ongoing concerns about the Iranian nuclear program, the issue on which the Republican presidential candidates have become increasingly bellicose. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman — the Moe, Larry, and Curly of the national-security state — are all up in his grill now, too, about why he hasn’t yet bombed the hell out of Syria. (Thanks, commenter Jennifer Hill!) So the president took the opportunity to remind the entire noisy peanut gallery that it’s easy to call for another war from the cheap seats:
Now, what is said on the campaign trail, you know, those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities. They are not commander-in-chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war. I’m reminded that the decision that I have to make, in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impact that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy. This is not a game, and there is nothing casual about it. And, you know, when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we’ve been doing over the last three years. It indicates to me that is more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem. Now, the one thing that we have not done is we haven’t launched a war. If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war they should say so, and they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be.
Those people who are proposing a war, or beating the drums of war, should explain clearly to the American people what the costs and benefits of a war would be. I’m not one of those people,. There is a cost, and sometimes we bear that cost, but we don’t play politics with it. When that decision gets mixed up with politics, that’s when we make mistakes.
Normally, the whole commander-in-chief thing makes my teeth itch, largely because I’ve seen presidents of both parties assume that being commander-in-chief of the armed forces made them commander-in-chief of the whole country. But the Republicans have spent most of this election season deriding Obama essentially as being a coward on matters of the national defense; watching a bulging bag of pretension and old sins like N. Leroy Gingrich, who never has found within himself an appetite he had the character to resist, call the president “soft” over and over again is enough to make any reasonable person give the president a pass on it this one time. Moreover, as the president himself pointed out, if you push any of the Republicans to the all, their solution to the problem of Iran is to “repeat the things we’ve been doing over the past three years.”
He leaned heavily on the notion that we are still in a “window of opportunity” in which diplomacy and sanctions could forestall a military action, something that NBC’s Richard Engel said afterwards might not sit well with “hardline Israelis.” (My opinion? “Hardline Israelis” can sit in a corner and have a cookie.) But what was more evident was that the president pretty much feels as though he’s been pecked at by ducks who really don’t have any skin in the actual game, and that he finds their bellicosity not only against the national interest, but also politically offensive. They don’t have the courage to stand up against their own compulsion to demagogue the most serious job a president has. Who are the cowards now?
(He also let a little of this slip out at poor Ed Henry, who noted that “some critics” think the president is deliberately causing gas prices to rise so as to “wean Americans” off fossil fuels. This is a recently popular trope among political paranoids. “Ed,” he replied, “do you seriously think that a president of the United States facing re-election wants gas prices to go higher? Does anyone here believe that?”)
There is no question that being the incumbent carries certain inherent advantages — such as making policy and holding press conferences while your potential rivals are tearing out each others livers. But this was something different. This was a subtle, deft assault on the notion that anyone on the Republican side has any real idea of the gravity of the job they’re running for, shrewdly reinforcing the dread in the Republican party that they’ve only been able to put the B-squad on the field against a still-very-vulnerable Democratic president. In doing so, he handed the floundering GOP a very carefully designed anvil.