President Barack Obama said on Sunday that the threat of terrorism to the United States has evolved into a new phase in the wake of recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, but he vowed that the nation will ultimately defeat the Islamic State and other militant groups.
“The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” Obama said during a 14-minute Oval Office address. Using an acronym for the group, he declared: “We will destroy ISIL.”
Obama hoped the rare prime-time address would help reassure an uneasy nation after a series of deadly terrorist attacks. Obama, who has struggled to calm public fears, made the decision to speak directly to the nation – only the third time he has used the venue – late last week and has been working on his remarks through the weekend.
Obama said the effort to defeat terrorists will “not depend on tough talk or abandoning our values or giving in to fear. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.”
Obama urged the public not to react with fear that could flame divisive rhetoric against the Muslim community and, the president believes, provide ballast to the Islamic State’s propaganda campaign.
“Let’s make sure we never forget what make us exceptional,” he said. “Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”
Aides said his aim Sunday was to clearly spell out the extent of the terrorist threats to the United States, explain his approach to fighting extremists in the Middle East and their propaganda on the Internet, and caution the American people from reacting in ways that Obama believes could exacerbate the problem.
But the challenge for Obama, who has been steadfast that he will not dramatically change course despite the recent attacks, has been to convince the public that an effort that he has said will take years to destroy the Islamic State can keep the country safe in the meantime.
“It will take time and success will not be linear,” National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice said Sunday on CNN. Asked whether the world is more dangerous than when she assumed her role in 2013, Rice added: “It’s certainly unsettled and we’re dealing with some very significant threats.”
Obama was not expected to offer any new strategies during his address, but aides emphasized that the administration has been constantly assessing the Islamic State and altering the U.S. approach as necessary. The president recently authorized 50 Special Forces to Syria to help advise rebel fighters and assist in ongoing airstrikes from a 65-member coalition led by the United States.
The administration also has won new commitments from France, Germany and the United Kingdom in recent weeks, and the coalition has begun targeting Islamic State oil supplies through airstrikes.
Yet for Obama, the decision to use the august setting of the Oval Office – his first prime-time address from there since 2010 – highlights the concern in the West Wing that terrorism fears will overtake the rest of Obama’s agenda in his final year in office.
The president has ruled out deploying significant U.S. military troops to the region, relying instead on airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition and providing assistance to local forces in Iraq and Syria.
Obama and his advisers have pointed to success in some areas of Iraq, where the Islamic State has lost territory. But the string of recent attacks claimed by the Islamic State – including the downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula – have alarmed the public and led Republicans to charge that Obama has underestimated the group.
“The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have further confirmed that radical Islamic terrorists are at war with the West,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., a presidential candidate. The president’s policies “have in fact made the world more dangerous. It is time for a dramatic shift in both foreign and national security policy.”
The setbacks have put Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, in the uncomfortable position of being asked to second-guess Obama.
On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, the former secretary of state said: “We have to fight in the air, fight on the ground and fight them on the Internet. We have to do everything we can with our friends and partners around the world. That’s what we’ll hear from the president, to intensify the current strategy.”
She added that they must also take additional steps, including asking Facebook, YouTube and Twitter not to allow Islamic State fighters to post messages appealing to potential sympathizers around the globe.
But, she emphasized, “I don’t think there should be American combat troops. . . . That would make things worse.”
Obama has cautioned the public not to overreact, and he has denounced rhetoric from some Republicans, including Cruz and Jeb Bush, another GOP presidential nominee, who have called on the administration to halt the influx of Muslim refugees from Syria.
The president is expected to discuss the need for the public to avoid creating the perception that the United States is at war with Islam, which Obama believes would help the Islamic State in their propagating campaigns to recruit foreign fighters and radicalize sympathizers in the United States and elsewhere.
In his remarks, Obama also plans to discuss the changing nature of the terrorist threat. Tashfeen Malik, one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attacks that killed 14 people last week, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on social media during the attack, authorities said. But there is no evidence that she and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, who was the other perpetrator, were operating under the direct guidance of the militant group.
Authorities have said that such lone wolf attacks, in which perpetrators become “self-radicalized,” are among the most difficult for U.S. intelligence agencies to detect and prevent.
To that end, Obama also is likely to renew his calls for stricter gun-control laws. The San Bernardino shooters reportedly used four guns that were purchased legally before being altered illegally to make the more deadly.
Although the United States has long been divided over gun laws and national security, the latest massacre – an act of pre-planned terrorism that also bears the confused markings of a random workplace attack – has only muddled the question of which debate is more pressing.
A sharp political debate broke out on Sunday among the presidential candidates in the 2016 race over what lessons to take from the mass shooting in San Bernardino and whether tighter gun laws, better intelligence-gathering or a more-aggressive fight against the Islamic State terrorist group could help prevent more carnage.
On ABC News, Bush called the talk of gun control was misplaced.
“The first impulse of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is to have gun control. Let’s have a strategy to take out ISIS there so we don’t have to deal with them here,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
In a separate Sunday morning interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Republican candidate Donald Trump said the attack in California and an earlier slaughter in Paris might not have been so deadly if the assailants’ victims also had been armed.
“You look at Paris, no guns – nothing,” Trump said. “And you look at California, no guns. I can tell you one thing, if I’m in there and had a gun, we’re going down shooting. We’re going to knock them out, okay? One way or another.”
But in this case, he said, “only the bad guys had the guns. So they were like sitting ducks, every one of them.”