Obama's National Address Tries to Calm Americans' Fears of ISIS and Hits GOP for Spreading Fear

President Obama sought to reassure the nation after the San Bernardino terrorist attacks in a televised Oval Office speech Sunday night, saying what the federal government was doing to destroy ISIS, what Congress could do, and explicitly chastising his GOP critics by saying what Americans should not do.


“Success won’t depend on tough talk, abandoning American values and giving in to fear,” Obama said, referring to his critics. “That’s what ISIL depends on.”

Obama sought to assure a jittery public after the mass shooting in San Bernardino where the wife of a Muslim couple that carried out the killings pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, ISIS, on Facebook just before the attack. That massacre, killing 14 and wounding more, came after the Paris attacks by ISIS followers that killed scores. 

Obama’s speech did not suggest a big shift in strategy—other than recognizing the nature of terrorist attacks was changing and urging Congress to pass a series of gun control laws to prevent would-be shooters from easy access to militarized weapons. Mostly, he told Americans what the U.S. government was doing. He ended by summarizing why war-mongering and Islamophobia by the GOP candidates was uninformed and played into ISIS’s hands. 

San Bernadino Update

Obama began his address by acknowledging the horror of the San Bernardino shooting at a county mental health office. There is no evidence the assailants were part of a global “terror conspiracy,” he said. Rather, they appeared to be individuals who went “down the dark path of radicalization.” Like the shootings in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Fort Hood, Texas, this development marked a “new phase” in the war on terrorism, he said, where individuals not groups were the threat.

“I know how real the danger is,” he said, then raising the question on most American’s minds: was this “a cancer with no immediate cure?” Obama did not say there was a fast cure, but said the U.S. “will overcome it.” He then listed many things the government was doing and could do, to lessen the likelihood of mass shootings.

Obama first summarized what the strategy by the military, spy services, diplomats and others, saying they’ve stopped “thousands” of would-be domestic attacks and were constantly evaluating what worked, needed to change or be intensified. He said the American military would do whatever was needed, anywhere in the world, and had stepped up overseas operations since the Paris attacks.

The U.S. also coordinates with foreign states, especially Muslim nations, Obama said, saying it has trained tens of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, deployed special operations troops abroad, and is cutting off ISIS’s access to banking networks and is attacking its oil assets and supply routes. The U.S. was leading a coalition of 65 nations, informed by top military planners and terrorism experts, Obama said, including other European and Middle Eastern nations that have increased their military and anti-terror role since Paris. 

What Congress Can Do

Obama then said what the Republican-led Congress could do to help, first saying it needed to rise above partisan sniping. “Here at home we have to work together,” he began, before pressing for specific gun-control measures—such as banning anyone on the FBI’s no-fly list from being able to buy a gun.

“What possibly could be the argument” to allow that, Obama asked, saying Congress also needed to rein in the availability of military-style guns. “We cannot identify every mass shooter” before they strike, he said. “But we can and we must make it harder for them to kill.”

Congress could increase the screening of people who enter the U.S. without visas, just as he ordered immigration authorities to review the process that approved the entry of one of San Bernardino killers into the country. Finally, Obama said Congress should explicitly authorize the use of military force against foreign terrorists, which it has not done despite his repeated urging. “These are the steps we can take together,” Obama said.

What We Should Not Do

Obama then indirectly turned to Republican critics, saying calls for a more aggressive war posture in Syria and demonizing Muslims in the U.S. and overseas was not just dumb but what ISIS wanted. He  started by restating his opposition to launching a new ground war.

“We should not be drawn into a long and costly ground war in Iraq and Syria,” Obama said, saying that’s what ISIS sought and adding that they could then maintain a guerilla war insurgency for years. Obama said he would not send American troops “to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil.”

He then chastised remarks by many 2016 Republican presidential contenders calling for a war against extremist Muslims and taking draconian measures in the U.S, such as Donald Trump’s call for government surveillance of American Muslims. The U.S. cannot “allow this to be war between the U.S. and Islam,” Obama said, forcefully noting that ISIS does not speak for Islam. “They are thugs and killers” and a “cult of death,” he said, adding most of their victims have been Muslims.

The U.S. needed stronger ties with Muslims overseas, he said, and “not push them away,” as the GOP contenders’ remarks are doing. Moderate Muslims overseas must confront anyone who twists the religion into a violent cult, he added. Domestically, he called on all Americans to “reject discrimination,” dismissing proposals by GOP candidates that called for religious loyalty tests “on those entering here” as war refugees. “When we travel down that road, we lose,” Obama said, adding that Muslims were our neighbors, sports heroes and serving in the military.      

Obama closed by saying these tactics will take time but will work, and urged people to not forget American values. “Freedom is more powerful than fear,” he said, adding we “win by coming together.”

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