WASHINGTON–Several of my colleagues asked at the Monday White House briefing why President Obama on Monday night is not delivering his prime time Libya speech from the Oval Office–as if speaking from the National Defense University here somehow devalued the importance of the speech. The Oval Office is not the premium venue it may once have been. Unless Obama was making the speech from Tripoli, the location does not matter that much.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough shrugged off attempts to read tea leaves about the location. Said Carney, “And I think there are different venues to do this. It’s still — it is the President speaking to the American people and — at a time when we expect a lot of Americans will be home and able to watch.”
The Obama White House–as all modern day presidential administrations–cares a lot about optics. That’s why every Obama event is carefully staged. Obama will speak before an audience of military personnel and a large contingent from the city’s diplomatic corps. The guest list makes sense: the Obama team wants to underscore that the Libya attacks are not a unilateral move and that the U.S. is part of an international coalition. The diplomats are expected to be representatives from other countries involved in the military action. You don’t get that storyline possibility sitting in the Oval Office.
Most people viewing the Obama speech Monday night will see a tight shot of the president flanked by flags and a blue backdrop. I would expect the cameras to show some shots of the audience. Don’t expect a lot of reaction: military audiences are known for sitting on their hands; it’s part of their culture not to applaud and interrupt speeches from the commander-in-chief.
Anyway–Obama is always a better speaker when he has a large room and an audience; talking tele-prompter to camera has never been his strongest game.
Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough was asked during the briefing,”Why is this not in the Oval Office? Why is it at NDU?”
Said McDonough: “Well, I think it’s very important to go down to NDU, which is a place where we have mid-career officers from each of the services who are currently serving or who have — many of them just come back from tours overseas. But if you just line it up, Chip, about what our military is doing right now — undertaking an enormous effort in Japan to support our Japanese allies in this moment of great trial; continuing the effort in Afghanistan to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for al Qaeda; winding down our effort in Iraq so as to ensure the hand-over at the end of this — at the end of next year, so that we are in a position to shape the environment using our unique assets and capabilities in Libya so that we can hand off to our allies.
….So he wants to send a very clear signal to the folks there to that regard. But as it relates to whether it should be in the Oval or somewhere else, I think that that’s probably better addressed to somebody else.
Another reporter asked McDonough again about why the speech was not in the Oval Office: Asked a reporter, “Well, what about the argument that has been widely reported, or at least commentated that he’s doing it to downplay the importance of the Libya operation — that’s why he’s not in the Oval Office?”
Said McDonough, “Well, you know, we’ve had meetings every day with the President, and the President is meeting every day either telephonically, in person — including over the weekend — with the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice President, General Ham, Secretary of State and his National Security Advisor because of the importance he attaches to it. The fact is that he attaches great importance to it. And as I think each of you has heard him say, no issue weighs more heavily on him and he attaches no greater importance to any issue than the decision to send our men and women in uniform into conflict.”
And yet another try, this time to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
Asked a reporter, “Why is the President not delivering this from the Oval Office? Why in an auditorium? Is it not — and not primetime but at 7:30 p.m.? Is he trying to not make this speech comparable to other Presidents who have announced war efforts?”
Said Carney, “I think giving an address that’s going to be covered by the — we hope by all the major networks and cable channels is — signifies how important we think this is. As Denis mentioned, the National Defense University is a very appropriate place to give a speech like this, given the tremendous engagement and sacrifice that our armed forces have been making around — Libya being the case specific right now, but around the world in different areas; and one area that Denis mentioned that people tend to forget because it’s not a traditional military operation, and that’s the assistance provided to our allies in Japan.
“And I think there are different venues to do this. It’s still — it is the President speaking to the American people and — at a time when we expect a lot of Americans will be home and able to watch.”