His usual cool and calm self, President Barack Obama played reassurer-in-chief to a nation fearful about homegrown terrorists after the bloodbath in San Bernardino.
But what America really needs from its commander-in-chief is more resolve that we have the right strategy to defeat the Islamic State and confront what he called an “evolving” terror threat.
After the buildup of a prime-time address from the Oval Office – only the third in nearly seven years as president – his 13-minute “stay the course” speech Sunday fell flat. He didn’t break much new ground, and to liken terrorism to a “cancer that has no immediate cure” was curiously clinical.
Obama, however, used his bully pulpit to reinforce some important principles.
It can’t be said enough that America is not at war with Islam and that the vast, vast majority of Muslims in America oppose the jihadis. He’s right that demonizing or discriminating against them not only violates American values, but will alienate Muslims. It’s what the Islamic State wants, and as Europe has learned the hard way, isolating Muslims can breed more jihadis.
Donald Trump played right into the terrorists’ hands with his ridiculous call Monday for a “complete and total shutdown” on Muslims entering the U.S.
At the same time, the president acknowledged that “an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities” and called on Muslim leaders to unequivocally reject it. He described the Islamic State as “thugs and killers” in a “cult of death.” Still, it’s maddening – and it only fuels his opponents – that he so stubbornly refuses to use the term “radical Islam.”
He’s also sticking with his strategy: continuing airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that officials claim have killed 23,000 Islamic State fighters; building up forces of Iraqis and Syrians and deploying more special forces to train and help them; and pursuing diplomacy to end the Syrian civil war.
Sunday night, he again made absolutely clear he will not order a ground war in Iraq or Syria and send “a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil.” He’s right that the Islamic State would like nothing better than to trap the U.S. in a bloody quagmire.
Instead, Obama called for a few changes on the margins: banning guns from people on no-fly lists; reviewing visa programs to make sure they’re not avenues for jihadis; and strengthening limits on assault weapons like those used in San Bernardino.
To nobody’s surprise, Obama’s speech was pilloried by GOP presidential candidates and his Republican critics in Congress. But it’s not like they’re offering any brilliant or guaranteed solutions. And their carping would have more credibility if they would specifically authorize military force against the Islamic State as Obama has asked.
Obama probably has the best strategy, or at least the most realistic one, though it would certainly help if there were more progress on the ground to show for it. The latest polls, however, show record low public support for his terrorism policies, driving down his overall approval rating.
By not making a more forceful case that better connects with the public mood, Obama risks getting backed into a corner for policies that he doesn’t want and that would not be good for America.