Fear Wins, Obama Loses

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, on Monday, November 30, 2015. 

Barack Obama's critics—a bit on the left, some on the right, but mostly in the press—often say that he's too cerebral, has too much faith in reason and logic, and fails to tap into the public's emotions when trying to convince them of something. He may have rode into office on a wave of hope and inspiration, but he sometimes seems to lack a feel for the more negative emotions, or at least the desire to exploit them. Anger, fear, outrage—these are not for him.

So it was that Obama has failed to convince the public that taking 10,000 refugees from Syria would be part of a long American tradition of aiding those in need. Depending on how you ask the question, between 50 and 60 percent of Americans will tell pollsters that we shouldn't accept the refugees, and the House in its wisdom already passed a bill to refuse them access. So it sure doesn't look like they'll be given sanctuary any time soon.

I suspect Obama believed, or at least hoped, that when he explained the logic at work, people couldn't help but see that fears of terrorism from refugees are absurd. Not only do they go through a rigorous, multi-stage screening process that can take up to two years, but if ISIS wants to send someone to America to stage a terrorist attack, all they have to do is have one of their people in Europe buy a plane ticket, and he can be here tomorrow. Short of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a paddleboat, posing as a refugee is about the most difficult and time-consuming way possible to get to the United States.

Maybe it was because of the long tradition of hostility on the part of the American public toward refugees, or maybe it was because of the Republican presidential candidates demagoguing the issue, but whatever the case, Americans remain unpersuaded. So is there anything Obama could have done differently?

If he had learned from some of his predecessors, he might have had a better shot. Consider, for instance, what the first Bush administration did when they wanted to go to war with Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Working closely with the Kuwaiti government, they engineered a masterful PR campaign to get Americans angry about the invasion. Its most dramatic moment came in congressional testimony from a young woman named Nayirah, who said she was a volunteer at a Kuwaiti hospital when the Iraqi soldiers came through, stole the incubators, and dashed the babies on the floor to die. The story was repeated countless times in the media, not to mention by President Bush himself. It was only discovered later that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and that the whole show was staged by PR giant Hill & Knowlton; the campaign was crafted by H&K executive Craig Fuller, who had been chief of staff to Bush when he was Ronald Reagan's vice president.

Thirteen years later, when Bush's son wanted to have his own Iraq war, he went mostly with fear as the conduit to consent. Saddam, Americans were told innumerable times, possessed a terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, one he would unleash upon us at any moment if we didn't invade.

That's how you get the public on your side: scare the crap out of them. On the refugee question, Obama has done just the opposite, saying that we are "not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks."

OK, so maybe he's right about the quality of our decision-making, but as every Republican knows, fear and panic are essential tools, to be used when you want the public on your side—or just when you want them to vote Republican. It also helps to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of tacitly supporting the enemy. While Obama has made the point that there's nothing ISIS wants more than to convince Muslims they aren't welcome in the west, he could have put it more bluntly. Say, "When it comes to the refugee question, either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Now obviously, the analogy between the two Iraq wars and the refugee situation is an imperfect one—emotions like fear or anger naturally lend themselves to the beating of the war drums, but less so to getting the public to commit a humanitarian act. Obama could have spent more time making people outraged about what Syrian refugees have endured, but that might have just increased the thirst for war (and right now, the public is about evenly split on whether we should send in large numbers of ground troops).

If there's a lesson in our recent history on issues like this, it would have to be that fear wins. Remember when Republicans were flipping out about Ebola, saying an epidemic was going to sweep the country because Obama was too weak to stop it? (See here, here, here, or here.) He told everyone to calm the hell down, but he got no credit for being right.

Ask supposedly wise people what Obama could have done differently when he gets overtaken by fear, and they'll almost inevitably start their response with "Obama should have explained..." When you hear this, it means there's an absurdly naïve argument on its way. First, whatever you think he should have explained, he almost certainly did—in speeches, interviews, and press conferences. The fact that you didn't notice it doesn't mean he didn't do it, just that it didn't work. Second, there's no reason to believe that simply by explaining, Obama could have transformed whatever debate we're talking about.

In 2014, Obama's approach to foreign policy was distilled as "Don't do stupid shit," which is another way of saying "Don't repeat the mistakes of the George W. Bush administration." The trouble is that it's hard to get the public's blood pumping by telling them the things you don't want to do—and by telling them that the fears the other side is stirring up are ungrounded. Even if you're right.

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