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Syria speech: What we learned about Obama (+video)

The suffering of children – mentioned seven times in the speech – sparks Obama's moral outrage like nothing else. And his presidential 'bubble' isn't as impervious as some might think.

By Staff writer / September 11, 2013

President Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech about Syria from the East Room of the White House in Washington Tuesday.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Washington

President Obama’s primetime speech on Syria Tuesday night seemed almost anti-climactic after all the buildup  – six network TV interviews the night before, the flurry of speeches and interviews by top advisers, the sudden opening Monday of a diplomatic path for dealing with Syria’s chemical arsenal.

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Indeed, Mr. Obama’s announcement that he had asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize use of force against Syria was not even necessary. Action in Congress had already been put on hold.

But the president’s 16-minute speech did at least lay out, in one digestible narrative, his thought process on dealing with the Assad regime, which had crossed Obama’s “red line” after allegedly using chemical weapons on its own people Aug. 21. Obama also shed light on how he processes events. To wit:

Obama and children. The suffering of children sparks an emotional reaction in Obama like nothing else. As with his response to the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., last December, Obama’s eyes shone with contempt and moral outrage when he discussed the “hundreds of children” subjected to poison gas in Syria last month.

Himself the father of two young children, the president referred to the children who died no fewer than seven times – at times in graphic terms, including the searing image of “a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.”

And he directed one moral plea about the children to a constituency that usually backs him.

“To my friends on the left,” Obama said, “I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”

Two of Obama’s top foreign policy advisers – National Security Adviser Susan Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power – have also highlighted the suffering of Syrian children in their public remarks calling for US action. But Obama’s rhetoric Tuesday showed that it’s not just the women of his administration who are hard-wired to feel special compassion for children.

The Obama administration has shown videos that depict hard-to-watch scenes of the chemical weapons attacks to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and reportedly considered including images as part of the president’s presentation Tuesday night, but opted not to, as children might have been watching.

'Outside' influences. The “bubble” in which Obama – and all presidents – resides is far from airtight. Though his didn't mention his wife, Michelle, in his speech, he has noted her hesitation over Syria at other times recently. On Tuesday night, Obama acknowledged that the public criticism over his handling of Syria had reached him, loud and clear.

“I know Americans want all of us in Washington – especially me – to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home: putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class,” Obama said.

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