President Barack Obama appears to be playing catchup to the national mood on terrorism.
His prime-time speech Sunday on the threat posed by Islamic State militants and their admirers may have been only his third address ever from the Oval Office. But he has spoken at least a dozen times about terrorism in the weeks since the Paris attacks and the mass shooting in San Bernadino. And it apparently hasn’t worked.
The higher-profile staging came as aides sought a way for Obama to reassert himself on the issue of national security. Despite frequent comments in past days, he’s faced criticism from Republicans for what seemed a dispassionate response to the back to back attacks, doubts about his strategy from members of both major parties, and the defection of 47 Democrats in the House of Representatives who did not accept his assurance that his administration already is doing an adequate job screening refugees from Syria.
Yet much of Obama’s failure to drive the conversation his way - that his strategy against the Islamic State is working however slowly - stems from his own rhetoric, particularly his reluctance to speak in anger or alarm about terrorism. Last week, for example, his White House lagged behind his own FBI director in saying flatly that the San Bernardino attack was an Islamic jihadist-inspired “act of terrorism.”
On Sunday, Obama strived to use clearer language to assure the country.
“This was an act of terrorism,” he said of the California attacks.
“We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us,” he added, sharpening his wording from his traditional phrasing of “degrade and ultimately destroy.”
He also implored Americans not to scapegoat Muslims for the actions of a “death cult,” but called on Muslim leaders and nations to do more themselves. “It's a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse,” he said.
Obama’s usual reticence – also on display in the aftermath of the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting and his administration’s initial focus on a video-inspired demonstration after the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya – is seen as deliberate caution by his White House and dismissed as insufficient to the task by his critics.
Before Obama spoke, a senior administration official knowledgeable about the speech but not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice said that the president “felt compelled” to deliver a speech to address fears prompted by both recent attacks.
“We recognized that there are very real and legitimate fears in the United States and around the world about the nature of this terrorist threat,” the official said.
Republicans were unmoved: “President Obama is a wartime president who doesn't seem to realize it,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
Obama’s customary hesitancy followed by acknowledgment reflects an inherent tension in Obama’s presidency: He campaigned for the White House, and has spent much of his seven years in office promising to turn the page on war and the threat of terrorism only to be forced to react by events in a convulsing Middle East. He again ruled out a ground war Sunday.
John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who studies the presidency, said Obama’s “overly cautious” tendency comes from a naturally deliberative personality as well as a rare attitude for politician that if he doesn’t have anything to say then he won’t say anything. Americans often want to hear from their presidents, though, in the way Bill Clinton spoke after the Oklahoma City bombing and George W. Bush after 9/11.
“After a series of tragedies, Americans are looking for someone somewhere to make them feel better,” Hudak said. “A president has the opportunity to make them feel better. ... His biggest weakness is not being able to do that.”
Critics complain that Obama has a tendency to react slowly or awkwardly.
When a Muslim Army doctor killed 13 and wounded 30 others at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, Obama didn’t comment until the following day. And his administration long called it an act of workplace violence, not Islamic-inspired terrorism.
After a would-be terrorist tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day 2009, a vacationing Obama didn’t make a public comment until four days later. When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, Obama didn’t speak publicly on it until nine days later.
Republicans complain that Obama hasn’t been forceful enough.
“If I am elected president we will utterly destroy ISIS,” Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz said Saturday in Des Moines. “We won’t degrade them. We will utterly destroy them. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion.”
Even prominent Democrats have criticized Obama’s strategy as weak, or have raised doubts about his assurances in past weeks.
I don't think the approach is sufficient to the job
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
In the House of Representatives, 47 Democrats brushed aside White House assurances that it is adequately screening refugees coming from Syria to the U.S., and voted for a bill that would require the administration to certify that any refugee has been fully vetted and is not a terrorist before they could be admitted to the U.S.
And on the campaign trail, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said Sunday that Obama’s approach needs bolstering. “We’re not winning,” she said on ABC News.
Jens David Ohlin, a law professor at Cornell University who studies war, said Obama is trying to strike a balance between his own cautious nature and what the American people want to hear in time of crises.
“Obama is often aggressive in his actions but rhetoric is always measured,” he said. “He’s not going to get on a soapbox and beat his chest.”