Freshly-minted Meet The Press moderator Chuck Todd scored a huge exclusive for his debut, and President Obama didn't disappoint in his one-on-one with the longtime NBC News Chief White House Correspondent. The President covered a wide variety of headline-grabbing topics, but one of the things he said isn't getting nearly enough attention.
In terms of "Stop the presses!" breaking news, the President confirmed reports that he will delay executive action on immigration until after the midterms, but before the end of the year. Let's just say that, like many liberals, I'm not a fan of this move. The theory is that taking action now could energize conservative base voters in states with vulnerable Democrats, but the flaw in that logic is that you can't get harder than diamond. The President gave every anti-immigrant base voter a reason to go DefCon 1 in June when he promised to take action at the end of the summer, and telling them he's still going to do it isn't about to make that thing go down.
President Obama explained that the decision had nothing to do with protecting vulnerable Democrats, but about crossing Ts and explaining to Americans why we didn't just send Central American kids right back home to be murdered (well, not all of them).
For some reason, the President also talked about Americans' fears over the Ebola outbreak, even though the disease is surprisingly nonlethal when a white American gets it. He also addressed the all-important topic of golf, acknowledging that he "should've anticipated the optics" of golfing after making a statement on the killing of Jim Foley, but also pointed out that "the important thing is in addition to that, is am I getting the policies right? Am I protecting the American people? Am I doing what's necessary?"
Then, there was an extended exchange over ISIS, Iraq, and Syria, most of which was a recap of news that emerged this past week regarding our plans to "degrade and destroy" and to "ultimately defeat" the terrorist army of asshole coal-rollers. One aspect of this story that's been getting little attention is the fact that the White House has consistently posited that the President doesn't actually need permission from Congress to act in Syria, a point that Obama reiterated to Chuck Todd.
"I'm confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people,"the President told Chuck. "And I'm always going to do what's necessary to protect the American people. But I do think it's important for Congress to understand what the plan is, to have buy in, to debate it."
Toward the end of that exchange, though, the President also rolled out the latest subtle rhetorical stretching of his wiggle room regarding U.S. troops on the ground. What began as a flat-out "no boots on the ground" stance at the start of U.S. re-involvement in Iraq crept to the much more generously wiggle-roomed, “We are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops back on the ground to engage in combat” a few weeks ago. Right at the end of his exchange with Chuck Todd on ISIS, the President again subtly changed exactly what it is we are not going to do:
And that's why we've been consulting with Congress throughout. And this speech will allow Congress, I think, to understand very clearly and very specifically what it is that we are doing but also what we're not doing. We're not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops.
We are going to be as part of an international coalition, carrying out air strikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops. We are going to be helping to put together a plan for them, so that they can start retaking territory that ISIL had taken over.
This phenomenon, a sort of foreign policy version of the "Grandma's on the roof" joke, shouldn't necessarily be cause for hair-on-fire "MISSION CREEP!" panic, but shouldn't be ignored either. The President, along with the shifting facts on the ground, appears to be telegraphing the possibility of more ground involvement in the form of advisers, security personnel, maybe some special forces, and retaining as much numerical latitude as he can.
On the other hand, these things always begin with the best of intentions, quagmire-wise, and while I think the President has shown good judgment on this issue, many Americans don't, and at some future date, we may have a president whose judgment I'm not all that big a fan of. That's why it is important that Congress begin to assert itself, and not cede even more war powers to the executive branch.
The big takeaway, instead, will likely be that Chuck managed to get the President to say that ISIS is not a "JV" team, although the President did not lay out a clear plan to choke off the group's supply of varsity jackets. At this rate, they'll have class rings before you know it, and then where will we be?