President Obama announced late on Friday that he’d be addressing the nation tonight about the situation in Libya. The last time he gave a major speech was the State of the Union address, in which he spoke for over an hour, and before that, at the memorial service in Tucson, for over half an hour—a record as far as eulogies by presidents go. (Bush, Clinton, and Reagan all spoke to our country for an average of six to nine minutes during times of national tragedy, and the gold standard of elegies, the Gettysburg Address, clocked in at only two minutes.) You can see why I think there’s a good chance his speech tonight will go too long. Here are three reasons why he should keep it short:
- Last week, the White House said that they were avoiding a national address on Libya because it would elevate the situation there and put it on a par with previous addresses by presidents justifying war. Since they were very careful all week to avoid the use of the word “war” —one national security staffer actually called it a “kinetic military action,” which was immediately ridiculed by many, for good reason—then, the thinking went, don’t address the nation in a way that reminds Americans of previous declarations of war. Fine. The best thing the president can do is to succinctly and authoritatively address Americans in a way that answers House Speaker John Boehner’s very reasonable list of questions—especially the ones regarding how much this is all going to cost—and then say good night. [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]
- If the president goes on too long—he can’t appear like the three-handed economist in the old joke—he’ll risk looking like he’s got qualms about American policy. He needs to explain what our objectives are and why we’re there. Period. Rather than taking on the broader question about what our Middle East policy is going to be moving forward, he should announce a strategic review and give a date certain for reporting back to the American people what the big picture will be. Everyone knows he’s been out of town and disengaged on this. If he tries to disseminate a long-winded, comprehensive policy, no one will take him seriously. Keeping it short will actually make him look more thoughtful and engaged.
- The president will be speaking tonight from the National Defense University rather than the Oval Office. Not a great move, if you’re trying to avoid the widespread criticism voiced by Charles Krauthammer last week: “It’s a war as designed by an Ivy League professor.” I would keep shots of the university to a minimum and not remind people that he’s at a school, rather than addressing members of Congress directly. One more reason to keep it short. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]
And if he can keep it to 29 minutes or less, he’ll be able to watch himself on NBC at 8:00 EST, when he leads a great tribute to the Points of Light movement’s 20th anniversary with all the former presidents. In an opening video, President Obama makes a moving statement about the power of voluntary service in an era of limited government—and celebrates the millions of ordinary Americans who are solving our nation’s biggest challenges in their communities. Let’s just hope he keeps his Libya remarks concise enough that we can all watch the tribute with our kids. To me, in the long run, talking with the next generation about giving back to our country is more important than another presidential statement about a frustrating overseas situation that could change by next week. Yet another reason to keep it short.