Barack Obama can't help being who he is. He knows the words but he doesn't hear the music of America. Some of us hear it, and some of us don't. Mr. Obama doesn't want to be a wartime leader Washington at Valley Forge, Lincoln at Fort Sumter, Roosevelt at Pearl Harbor but there he is, like it or not. Everyone, friend and foe, knows he doesn't like it, and that makes him a leader who can't lead.
No president wants to go to war. Lincoln tried amelioration, promising not to interfere with slavery, but other causes of war prevailed. FDR stayed out of the war in Europe longer than he should have, since it was clear that decency and civilization was at stake, and only Pearl Harbor pushed him closer to the inevitable. Even then Hitler jumped first. Wars kill people and break things, and nobody sees that with the clarity of a president.
But a president must see the enemy for who and what he is when the first blows fall. Reluctance and reticence must retreat in the face of reality. Delay quickly becomes disaster. "The buck," as Harry S. Truman said of his desk in the Oval Office, "stops here." Regret it as he will, President Obama is a wartime president with all the realities and responsibilities of a wartime president.
No one has set out the dilemma for both the president and the country more succinctly than Tom Cotton, the freshman senator (a Republican, if that matters) from Arkansas. "President Obama is a wartime president who doesn't seem to realize it," he said after listening to the president on Sunday night. "Fourteen Americans were slaughtered by Islamic terrorists, but the president is dangerously detached from reality, lecturing us about political correctness and ineffective gun control.
"Radical Islamic jihadists are not contained and are advancing on every front killing innocent civilians from California to Paris to Mali, blowing an airplane out of the sky in Egypt, and inflaming the entire Middle East from Tehran. Imagine if these terrorists get their hands on uranium instead of gunpowder.
"Radical Islam is at war with America, our only choice is to win or lose, and the danger we debate whether we're at war, the closer we come to losing it. How many more Americans will die before President Obama recognizes this fundamental truth? He must implement a real strategy to defeat the Islamic State and remove Bashar al-Assad, take the handcuffs off our military in Iraq and Syria, and restore and strengthen vital intelligence programs. We needed to hear from the president how to win this war. But we only heard how we will continue losing it."
The president demonstrated that he is capable of learning from experience. He conceded, for the first time and maybe only for the sake of rhetoric, that America is, after all, the exceptional nation, and appeared to put his goofy euphemism "workplace violence" in a place where it can die a deserved death.
Then he retreated to small measures when everyone was listening for something big and bold. He made another pitch for prohibiting anyone on the so-called "no fly" list from buying a gun. This sounds a lot more important than it is. The no-fly list was drawn up with no regard for due process or review by a judge. No one knows who decides how someone gets on the list.
More than a quarter of a million men and women with no recognized affiliation with a terrorist group is on the list. The late Ted Kennedy was once on the list by a bureaucratic blunder, and it took the work of one of the most powerful Senate offices on Capitol Hill to correct the error. Other innocents have similarly suffered. Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, a Democrat, discloses that congressional investigators found that 72 employees of the Department of Homeland Security are on the list.
Mr. Obama seemed to put his heart, cool and detached though it was, only in his lecture to Christians, Jews and others to avoid discriminating against Muslims, as indeed they should. He might have acknowledged the reality that there is no discrimination against Muslims; Americans have been remarkably tolerant in the face of provocation. Recognizing radical Islam for what it is, is not intolerance but common sense.
Mr. Obama might have given a presidential salute to a group of courageous Muslim women who went to the Islamic Center of Washington on the day of his speech to post a declaration denouncing violent jihad, rejecting the Islamic State and "the ideology of violent Islamic extremism."
This is the kind of leadership we once got from presidents. There's no place for summer soldiers when duty calls, even to the president.