Toby Harnden thinks yesterday’s speeches by Barack Obama and Dick Cheney represented a major public competition to mold national opinion and that the former Vice President won.
The spectacle of two duelling speeches with a mile of each other in downtown Washington was extraordinary. I was at the Cheney event and watched Obama’s address on a big screen beside the empty lectern that the former veep stepped behind barely two minutes after his adversary had finished.
So who won the fight? (it’s hard to use anything other than a martial or pugilistic metaphor). Well, most people are on either one side or the other of this issue and I doubt today will have prompted many to switch sides.
But the very fact that Obama chose to schedule his speech (Cheney’s was announced first) at exactly the same time as the former veep was a sign of some weakness.
The venues for the speeches said something. Obama showily chose the National Archives, repository for many of the founding documents of the US, and spoke in front of a copy of the Constitution – cloaking himself in the flag, as Republicans were often criticised for doing.
To hear Cheney speak, we were crammed into a decidedly unglamourous and cramped conference room at AEI, favourite think tank of conservative hawks.
The former veep’s speech was factual and unemotional and certainly devoid of the kind of hokey, self-obsessed, campaign-style stuff like this, from Obama’s address today: “I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to these shores in search of the promise that they offer. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn their truths when I lived as a child in a foreign land.”
In terms of Obama’s purported aim for his speech – to present a plan for closing Guantanamo Bay aimed at placating Congress – he failed. The reception on Capitol Hill was lukewarm with even Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Cheney’s speech wasn’t stylish, there were no rhetorical flourishes and the tone was bitingly sarcastic and disdainful at times. But it was effective in many respects and Cheney showed that Obama is not invulnerable.
The Politico agrees that Obama is on the defensive.
For the first time in his presidency, Americans are getting a glimpse of Barack Obama on defense.
Over the past few weeks, Obama has been back on his heels over torture and terror, issues on which he surely thought he had the upper hand.
And he spent Thursday battling charges from a man he surely thought he had vanquished in November, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
It took some worried calls from Capitol Hill Democrats, congressional aides said, to convince him otherwise â€“ that he needed to give a speech defending his plan for closing the terror prison at Guantanamo Bay, and rebutting Republican claims that the move would endanger Americans where they live.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others made clear â€œthat weâ€™re going to need a lot more cover if weâ€™re going to be able to deal with this issue,â€ said one Democratic leadership aide.
So on a day when Obama would have rather been anywhere else â€“ remaking the auto industry or cheerleading an economic recovery â€“ he was sharing TV screens with Cheney. …
“The White House didnâ€™t want to do it â€” they want to drive the agenda, they want to be focused on health care right now,â€ said Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network, a Democratic think tank. â€œThe Hill asked him to do this and he did it.â€
That forcing of Obama’s hand marks a remarkable turnabout for a president who holds the most commanding position in American politics in two decades.
The most popular politician in the country found himself pushed up against a wall by one of the least popular in Cheney â€“ the leading voice in a budding Republican attack on Obama over national defense, one of the GOPâ€™s oldest (and most successful) cudgels against Democrats.