ISIS, the midterms, and the power of the image

Middle Eastern terrorists may have given President Barack Obama an opportunity to salvage the 2014 midterm elections for the Democrats. That’s the gist of the lead item in NBC News’s First Read. “ISIS Speech Offers Obama One Chance to Turn Bad Polls Around” is the headline, and you wonder if there was a temptation to write “One Last Chance.”

Over the past year, we’ve heard that the GOP’s government-shutdown strategy, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the Hobby Lobby case, and a Ferguson-inspired debate over criminal justice could be key factors in the midterms. More recently, there was the idea that free-floating crabbiness could determine the votes of the few who turn out in November. “The new survey portrays a country still in a sour mood heading toward the November midterm elections,” said a report on a Washington Post/ABC News Poll that finds “nearly two-thirds say the country is seriously off-track.”


But you can never count out war as a last-minute spur to the electorate. The same poll that diagnosed America’s “sour mood” also found “an increasingly hawkish mood,” and wide support for airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Could the political party that appeals to the hawks gain an advantage in November?

Andrew Sullivan worries about this “Nightmare Scenario”: “Americans have shown themselves to be terrified beyond measure by a group of religious fanatics controlling an area about the size of Maryland — so terrified, in fact, that they want to make Syria’s and Iraq’s civil wars our war, to own them and their outcome.”

But The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier is pushing for American intervention, asking, “Why are we so uneasy with our own moral and historical prominence?” Criticizing the president for not responding quickly enough to ISIS, he charges, “Obama has failed in his attempt to slip away from history and its viciousness. The arc has snapped back in his face.”

And Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum muses about the power of imagery in pushing public opinion, something that ISIS seems well aware of. Referring to the videos of ISIS beheading two American journalists, he writes,  “Millions of formerly peaceable people — people who already knew perfectly well that ISIS was a barbarous bunch of thugs — suddenly want to go to war because we now have pictures of that barbarism.” Referring to an oft-told story about a White House aide ignoring the negative content in a TV news report by Stahl and instead gushing over its flattering footage of Ronald Reagan, Drum adds, “It’s not just Lesley Stahl who’s trapped in Lesley Stahl’s world anymore. We all are.”

Will the shock of the ISIS videos put America back into a interminable war? NBC suggests that you tune into its revamped Meet the Press on Sunday to find out.

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