Weekly Feature

2015-12-09 / Editorial

Rare Oval Office address failed to inspire us

Managing Editor

When I heard that President Barack Obama was going to address the nation on Sunday night, I was encouraged that he would be speaking from the Oval Office instead of the East Room, Rose Garden or other venue in the White House.

I pictured many of his predecessors seated behind the famous “Resolute Desk,” steeped in history and a symbol of strength and power.

There has been no official statement as to why the president chose to stand instead behind a podium, blocking nearly all sight of the desk, on Sunday. With him hovering above eye level, I felt as if I was getting a lecture from my father rather than a pep talk about not caving in to fear and hatred following the Dec. 2 shootings in San Bernardino.

First, what’s so important about the desk anyway? Well, every president since Rutherford Hayes — except Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford — has used the Resolute Desk, although some chose to use it in their private study in the residence, according to the White House Museum.

It was made from the timbers of HMS Resolute, an abandoned British ship discovered by an American vessel and returned to the Queen of England as a token of friendship and goodwill. When the ship was retired, Queen Victoria commissioned construction of the desk and presented it to President Hayes in 1880. It’s our Rock of Gibraltar.

Obama has spoken from a seated position behind the desk on just two occasions. I recall being surprised that he spoke from a podium in another room to announce the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Surely that was a moment worthy of the Oval Office.

Sadly, Obama has been photographed at least twice with his feet on the desk, so using it as a stage for critical policy statements and inspirational speeches may not seem that important to him.

But back to Sunday’s address.

The president’s body language toward the all-seeing eye of the television camera was intimidating. He was looking down, literally and figuratively, at a time when it would have been far more consoling to look every man, woman and child in the eye and tell us that our government is doing all it can to protect us on the homefront. I felt uncomfortable. Ron Lonsberry of WHAM radio in Rochester put it in blunt terms.

“Long past the point that everybody stopped listening to him, he [Obama] is speaking more and more and saying less and less. And what he is saying has become completely predictable,” said Lonsberry. “The more we learned about the terrorists, the clearer their motivations became. And the more we learned about the police, the clearer their motivations became.

“And here was the president who, six months ago, said the police were too militarized and ordered the Defense Department to take back surplus armored vehicles given to the police — armored vehicles that were used to bring down these terrorists.”

For the record, Lonsberry is an Army veteran and a member of the National

Rifle Association.

The president did make some valid points on Sunday. He renewed calls to tighten the nation’s gun laws to potentially make it more difficult for ISIS-inspired individuals to legally purchase firearms.

“White House officials also have floated the idea of banning military style assault weapons, something Republicans say would violate the Second Amendment,” according to John T. Bennett of the Washington, D.C., newspaper Roll Call.

“What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon?” Obama asked on Sunday. He called that lapse in security “insane” during his Saturday radio address. “We may not be able to prevent every tragedy, but — at a bare minimum — we shouldn’t be making it so easy for potential terrorists or criminals to get their hands on a gun that they could use against Americans.”

I agree, Mr. President.

The nation needs inspirational leadership that not only calms our fears but also strengthens our confidence. Unfortunately, that opportunity was squandered Sunday night.

(David F. Sherman is a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@bee news.com.)

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