The Limitations of Barack Obama's Rhetorical Repertoire

If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that Barack Obama is not good enough at making Americans feel angry and afraid. When he first ran for president, we were astounded at his rhetorical gifts, but in retrospect they seem so touchy-feely. He made his listeners feel things like hope, optimism, and inspiration. Which is all well and good, but a country that can't go more than a few years without invading somebody needs a leader who knows how to beat the war drums, get the blood pumping, ride his horse back and forth in front of the assembled troops and shout, "This day, we fight!"

Barack Obama is not that leader. He doesn't do anger and fear, probably because he tends not to get angry or afraid. So who can step up to don that mantle? Little Joey Biden, that's who:

Vice President Joe Biden used the strongest language to date from the Obama administration in response to the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff by ISIS militants.

Speaking at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, on Wednesday the vice president paid tribute to Sotloff before vowing justice against his killers.

"The American people are so much stronger, so much more resolved than any enemy can fully understand," Biden said. "As a nation we are united and when people harm Americans we don't retreat, we don't forget. We take care of those who are grieving and when that's finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice because hell is where they will reside."

Biden is so tough he won't even offer ISIS the opportunity to convert to Christianity instead of dying, as would Fox News counterterrorism analyst and "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson. This is part of Biden's unique charm: He'll take whatever emotion he senses a moment calls for, and crank it up to 11.

Not so his boss. Taking the long view has always been one of Obama's strengths, which was evident from his first presidential campaign when he and those close to him refused to get caught up in the manic "win the morning" ethos that grips most political professionals. You get a sense now that not only is he being cautious about what actions the United States should take with regard to ISIS, he's also being cautious in how he talks about it. He doesn't want to raise expectations of a quick and glorious victory, or even raise people's bloodlust in the way Biden would. It's as though he's asking himself how what he says today is going to look six months from now.

You can see this as both a strength and a weakness. As sensible as it is, and whatever it might do to tamp down the fervor for ill-considered action, it does place him at a certain distance from his audience when he declines to channel the more fervid emotions they might be feeling. This is a real contrast with his predecessor, who was happy to go for the big cheer, even if it should have been foreseeable that later on his words would seem absurd. For instance, just after the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush actually said with utter seriousness that we would "rid the world of evil."

If you wanted a president who would stand on a pile of rubble and promise vengeance, Bush was your guy. An Obama partisan would point out that though Bush's approval may have skyrocketed, when he left office seven years later Osama bin Laden was still at large; the al Qaeda leader wasn't caught until the more sober Barack Obama was running things.  

In the end, the results are what really matters. At moments like this, however — when the course ahead is unclear, and the public is trying to figure out what we should do — a president who can whip people into a frenzy is going to have an easier time rallying the public behind him.