You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Obama saved his harshest words for Republican xenophobes. He was right to do so.

Conservatives are outraged that Obama this morning spoke less passionately about terrorists than about Republican candidates proposing a Christians-only policy for Syrian refugees.

This is supposed to reveal something about Obama—he apparently hates Republicans more than the jihadis he’s been bombing all year.

But Obama actually struck an appropriate rhetorical balance. First, there’s an unsexy but profound argument for not succumbing to nativist insistence that politicians pound their lecterns and denounce “radical Islam.” Obama’s disposition (and George W. Bush’s before him) facilitates coalition building, and denies ISIS easy recruitment tools.

There’s also a moral argument. Obama condemned Republicans—particularly Ted Cruz, whose family benefited from America’s hospitality to the politically persecuted—in withering terms. “That’s shameful. ... We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.” Obama spoke with more emotion about this domestic intolerance than about ISIS, yes, but precisely because it’s a critical housekeeping issue, not a complex foreign entanglement. Obama can’t make ISIS poof into smoke with macho rhetoric, but he can use rhetoric to shape, sharpen, and elevate U.S. policy.

Obama’s language doesn’t reflect insouciance about ISIS’s crimes. To the contrary, holding ourselves to a higher standard of tolerance is the entire point.