The White House announced today that the president would address the nation on Tuesday night about the situation in Syria. This speech comes almost two weeks after the White House expressed high confidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on its citizens resulting in a White House-estimated 1400 deaths. Since the August 30 announcement, the president has made statements to the press and at the G20 summit about his intent to authorize a military response.
It is very unusual that a president known as a gifted public speaker would wait so long before addressing the American people on this subject. Although most public opinion surveys indicate that a majority of Americans don’t favor a military response in Syria, President Obama’s reluctance on this issue is typical of his approach to many issues, especially when compared to his presidential predecessors.
On August 27, 1983 President Ronald Reagan addressed the American people on the the deaths of over 200 Marines in a car bomb attack against their barracks in Lebanon. After speaking about the Lebanon situation, Reagan spoke about the use of military in the Caribbean nation of Grenada, a country and situation unknown to most Americans. In the speech Reagan tied the situations in Lebanon and Grenada as being caused by Soviet Union mischief.
Reagan, as did other modern presidents, recognized the power of bully pulpit to affect public opinion in the country. President Obama, however, is much more reluctant to take to the national airwaves on Syria, the Affordable Care Act, and many other issues. It is true that previous presidents, like Reagan, did not have the hyper partisanship that Obama faces or the media environment that makes it difficult for even the president to cut through the media clutter and get a majority of Americans to pay attention to any issue.
It is, however, remarkable that Obama, whose political career was made on the basis of his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, would not take on the challenge of speaking to the American people about an issue that he may be staking his presidency on.