The two presidents stood in the East Room on Tuesday afternoon, united in their goal of defeating the Islamic State but separated by a stylistic gulf as vast as the Atlantic.
On the left, facing the cameras, was Francois Hollande, war president. He spoke of “cowardly murderers” who “dishonor humanity,” of a “relentless determination to fight terrorism everywhere and anywhere,” of “an implacable joint response,” of “hunting down their leaders” and “taking back the land.”
On the right stood Barack Obama, President Oh-bummer.
Defeating the Islamic State?
“That’s going to be a process that involves hard, methodical work. It’s not going to be something that happens just because suddenly we take a few more airstrikes.”
A political settlement in Syria?
“It’s going to be hard. And we should not be under any illusions.”
Could the Paris attacks have been prevented?
“It’s hard — that’s a hard thing to track. … That’s a tough job.”
Obama, in Turkey last week, responded to those who believe he isn’t tough enough on the Islamic State. “Some of them seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference,” he said.
Tough talk won’t defeat terrorists — but it will rally a nation. It’s no mere coincidence that the unpopular Hollande’s support has increased during his forceful response to the attacks, while Obama’s poll numbers are down.
The importance of language was very clear at the White House on Tuesday, even in translation.
There was little difference in their strategies for fighting the Islamic State, but Hollande was upbeat and can-do, while Obama was discouraging and lawyerly. It was as if the smoke-’em-out spirit of George W. Bush had been transplanted into the body of a short, pudgy, bespectacled French socialist with wrinkled suit-pants.
From my fourth-row perspective, Obama was still and contained, while Hollande’s sweeping gestures kept setting off bursts of camera-shutter clicks. The Frenchman brought Mediterranean heat (“dismantle and destroy”), while the American was Lake? Michigan-cool (“There is a potential convergence of interests between the various parties”).
It’s not as if Obama lacks emotion (he rubbed his face and appeared to blink back tears as Hollande spoke of the young American woman killed in the Paris attacks) or passion (he spoke movingly about the need to admit Syrian refugees). But when he spoke of war and terrorism, it was to play down and reassure. “My fellow Americans, let’s remember we faced greater threats to our way of life before,” he said.
Obama had moments of loft in his lengthy opening statement. He spoke of the “murderous” Islamic State and the “madness” of terrorism as a “scourge that threatens all of us.” It “must be destroyed,” he said. But he turned defensive when he reminded everybody that a 65-nation coalition has been fighting the Islamic State “for more than a year,” and he recited its “progress.” Later, Obama said the task was to “accelerate” the “success” already seen.
Hollande — whose capital, after all, is the one that was just attacked — had a greater sense of urgency. “The Paris attacks generated a lot of emotion, but that’s not enough,” he said. “We must act. And for a number of days now, I have been trying to convince, convincing all the countries that can act, to do so. … Today I am here with Barack so that we can act with greater intensity and coherence as well.”
Asked about Turkey shooting down a Russian military plane, the two had the same response — to avoid escalation — but voiced it in very different ways. The cerebral Obama said “this underscores the importance of us making sure that we move this political track forward.” The visceral Hollande said, “The only purpose is to fight against terrorism” and the Islamic State.
When asked if there was a deadline for ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, both men had the same policy: no timetable. But what they said after that highlighted their different styles.
Hollande spoke of a new era. “There is a new mindset now,” he said. “And those who believed that we could wait” now realize “the risk is everywhere. … We, therefore, must act.”
Then came President Oh-bummer.
“Syria has broken down,” he said. “And it is going to be a difficult, long, methodical process to bring back together various factions within Syria to maintain a Syrian state.”
Maybe you can motivate people when you sound so discouraging. But it’s hard.
DANA MILBANK is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.