WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will try to reassure a nervous nation on Sunday that he has a plan to defeat the fast-evolving threat of terrorism, as fears multiply of ISIS attacks on the homeland and public trust in his handling of the threat dipping to record lows.
Obama’s rare 8 p.m. ET Oval Office address reflects growing anxiety that the global showdown with the extremist group has now spread to U.S. soil following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, that authorities are treating as terrorism.
His appearance comes at a time of public disquiet over terrorism and a political debate over the threat, now consuming the 2016 campaign, raging at levels not seen since the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. Obama has also struggled to convince critics he has a viable strategy for destroying ISIS in the Middle East and has been accused of downplaying the threat from the group for political reasons.
The gravity of the occasion is underscored by Obama’s decision to use the symbolic power of the Oval Office for only the third time in his presidency, following addresses on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the end of the Iraq war in 2010.
He is under intense pressure to strike a rhetorical note equal to the moment, following a string of comments about ISIS that left him vulnerable to claims by opponents that he had not take the group’s rise seriously.
Once, the president’s handling of terrorism was a political asset and helped him win re-election, following the killing of Osama bin Laden. But now it looks more like a liability with ISIS plotting or inspiring attacks from California to Paris and on a Russian airliner over Egypt and capturing territory from North Africa to Afghanistan.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month, after an ISIS rampage in Paris but before the California attack, found that a record low of 40% of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of terrorism and only 35% backed his record on ISIS.
The White House said that Obama would discuss the investigation into the San Bernardino attack last week, which killed 14 people, and then address the broader threat from terrorism, how it has evolved and how ISIS will be defeated.
“He will reiterate his firm conviction that ISIL will be destroyed and that the United States will draw upon our values — our unwavering commitment to justice, equality and freedom — to prevail over terrorist groups that use violence to advance a destructive ideology,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Earnest’s statement was a clear hint that Obama will also touch on the place of Muslims in U.S. society, following emotive rhetoric on Islam by some GOP presidential candidates, and a fierce debate sparked by calls to halt the flow of Syrian refugees into the country as terror fears spike.
Sunday’s address also seems to be an implicit acknowledgment that Obama has failed to convince Americans that he is prepared to take on the ISIS threat, amid widespread criticism of his strategy and rhetoric on the issue that keeps being overtaken by events.
Inside the White House there is an acknowledgment that the attacks in Paris and California have made the threat of terrorism feel much closer to home for many Americans and that there are very real fears about ISIS that the president wants to address. Obama is also expected to detail extra steps to safeguard the homeland that have been taken since the attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people.
His speech comes after Obama has variously referred to ISIS as a “JV” team, said it was “contained” and described its fighters as “killers with good social media” despite its widening footprint in the Middle East and apparent turn to attacking soft Western targets in recent weeks.
Republicans have redoubled attacks following the California killings to fire up a hawkish party base ahead of early nominating contests and to suggest that Obama’s policy isn’t working and that the president does not understand the threat.
“The president stands up and says the Islamic state is not Islamic. That’s just nutty,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in Iowa on Friday.
“Why on earth did the Obama administration not know this ahead of time and stop them before they carried out this terror attack?” Cruz said of the California shooting.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio pressed for ground troops in the Middle East.
“Moving forward, this is not going to be the last attempt to attack the homeland,” Rubio said.
GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who has pledged to be “so tough” on ISIS, also appears to be benefiting politically from his aggressive stance on terrorism.
“I’m gonna get people jobs and I’m going to protect people,” Trump told CNN last week. “And that’s why whenever there’s a tragedy, everything goes up, my numbers go way up because we have no strength in this country we have weak, sad politicians.”
Other candidates have warned the United States is in a war of civilizations with radical Islam and that a new “world war” has reached U.S. soil.
Such political fury complicates Obama’s effort to ease public fears of terrorism and to build support to confront two critical problems — the expanding battle against ISIS and its evolving tactics and his own political vulnerabilities on the issue.
His speech comes at an alarming moment.
Terrorism experts are warning that the San Bernardino attack could be the harbinger of a much more acute threat to U.S. soil, especially as more than 250 Americans are known to have gone to Syria to fight with ISIS.
‘More of what we can expect’
“Unfortunately I think it is more of what we can expect in the future — whether it is copy cats or whether you have, again, either ISIS-aligned or inspired or ISIS-directed individuals,” said Dean Alexander, director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University. “It might instigate ISIS to take a more proactive approach to send individuals here to the U.S. or to try to recruit.”
The California attack is so concerning because Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Mali, the couple behind it, seem to have been inspired by ISIS, but not linked directly to the group.
Such a “self radicalization” scenario by Muslims on U.S. soil has long been feared by anti-terrorism experts who say such attacks are nearly impossible for the administration to detect and stop.
Still, the White House insists that an intensifying air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is succeeding in curtailing the group, and Obama is adamant that sending U.S. ground troops back into a Middle East conflict is not the way to defeat it.
But critics say he has consistently underplayed the threat from ISIS because its rise conflicts with his assurances that he has severely degraded the threat from global terror — a key legacy issue as he nears the end of his second term.
“At every turn, the American people can see with their own eyes how tragically wrong the President has been,” said John Hannah, a former deputy national security advisor for Vice President Dick Cheney.
“Instead of being the JV team, they turn out to be the most powerful terrorist group in history,” said Hannah, who also worked in the Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations.
“Instead of being contained, they’re conducting or inspiring spectacular terrorist operations on multiple continents — including now in the United States. ISIS affiliates are spreading across the Middle East and south Asia.”
Under increasing pressure to toughen his rhetoric, Obama is also likely to use his address to counter claims the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself.
“They can’t beat us on the battlefield, so they try to terrorize us into being afraid, and changing our patterns of behavior, and panicking, and abandoning our allies and partners, and retreating from the world,” Obama said at a press conference in Malaysia last month.
But his critics — like Rubio for instance — warn that the president, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, are being too politically correct and even refuse to voice the true nature of the threat.
“We’ve got to be clear — we are at war with ISIS. We are at war with radical, apocalyptic jihadists. And that is why ultimately we must defeat them,” Rubio said on Fox News on Friday, as he accused Obama of using the California attack as a new spur for his push for gun control rather than as a terrorist outrage.
But Obama maintains that loaded anti-Muslim rhetoric actually helps ISIS achieve its goal of being seen as a genuine representative of the Islamic faith.
“We must never accept the premise that they put forward because it is a lie,” Obama said in February.
“Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders. They are terrorists.”