Obama's cerebral reaction to terror tested in Orlando

Story highlights

  • The President travels to massacre site
  • He meets with victims' families

(CNN)President Barack Obama on Thursday traveled to the scene of the largest terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 buffeted by criticism that he doesn't understand the threat posed by radical Islam and hasn't done enough to protect the homeland.

When terrorists have struck during his presidency, Obama has typically reacted cerebrally, trying to ensure that reason triumphs over the fear and emotion of the moment even as critics such as Donald Trump assail it.
    On Thursday in Orlando, Obama had to yet again console Americans grieving from a mass shooting -- and on this occasion he had to also reassure Americans reeling from the dawn of a new era of mass casualty, lone wolf, homegrown terrorism that authorities have long feared.
    There is a method to Obama's analytical response, namely that he believes it is the best way to neutralize a threat that preys on emotion and paranoia. While he typically offers prayers for the victims and their families and warns he will hunt terrorists wherever they are, the President often makes the point that terrorism in some form is an inevitable fact of modern life.
    "I've said before, these lone actors or small cells of terrorists are very hard to detect and very hard to prevent. But across our government ... we are doing everything in our power to stop these kinds of attacks," Obama said Tuesday, leveling with the nation about the reality of homegrown terrorism. "We work to succeed 100% of the time. An attacker, as we saw in Orlando, only has to succeed once."
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    But this intellectual response to terrorism has also created a political opening that his opponents are exploiting, none more than the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
    With that in mind, Obama also used his speech on Tuesday, delivered after meeting National Security Council officials, to launch a fiery denunciation of Trump's much more visceral response to the tragedy, which called for banning Muslim migration in to the U.S.
    Indeed, Obama has steered clear of emotive displays following terror attacks, though he has expressed more impassioned responses to mass shootings such as the one at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, and a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
    In Orlando on Thursday, Obama vowed that the United States would do whatever it took to pursue ISIS abroad, but said it was not just the military that had to be involved. He quickly turned from terrorism to focus on gun control, issuing a fresh demand for Congress to take action to keep the most lethal weapons from being used in mass killings that have occurred over and over during his presidency.
    His remarks, betraying his frustration at the failure of lawmakers to act, had more in common with his response to gun massacres than his more intellectual approach to talking about terrorism.
    "Our politics have conspired to make it as easy as possible for a terrorist or even just a disturbed individual to buy extraordinarily powerful weapons, and they can do so legally," Obama said after meeting families of the 49 victims of the shooting.
    "Today, once again, as has been true too many times before, I held and hugged grieving family members and parents, and they asked, 'Why does this keep happening?' And they pleaded that we do more to stop the carnage. They don't care about the politics. Neither do I."
    Vice President Joe Biden joined Obama in Orlando, as did Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in a show of bipartisan unity.
    In Obama's mind, the logical reaction to terrorism is to deprive the terrorists of what they want, to stay firm to American values and not to indulge in theatrical vows for vengeance and bloodthirsty rhetoric.
    "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us," Obama said in the seminal speech of his administration about terrorism at the National Defense University in 2013.
    Terrorism, as he sees it, is by definition is a tactic designed to create the maximum fear, emotion and panic in the populace, to lure the target into taking irrational responses that highlight the terrorists' cause, impugn its own values and lead to a spiral of chaos and ruin.
    At times, as with Orlando Sunday, after the Paris attacks last year, or after the Boston bombings, Obama has seemed to do a better job explaining the reasons for the attacks and the concept of terrorism itself than empathizing with Americans suddenly confronting the prospect of death and destruction being unleashed on the homeland.
    It's an approach that lacks the cathartic emotion that a politician like Trump can summon among supporters with claims that America is "weak" and needs to start getting "very tough" with terrorists.
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    And Trump reacted to the roasting he received from Obama Tuesday by noting that the President seemed "more angry at me than he was at the shooter."
    Moreover, his rhetorical style is mirrored by a policy approach that is designed to ensure the United States does not overreact to the terror threat -- by waging new foreign ground wars of compromising its own values in balancing liberty and security.
    But that has also offered an opening to critics who say he has played down the terror threat and, while still on a victory lap after the killing of Osama bin Laden, failed to anticipate the rise of ISIS.
    His comment in 2014 that ISIS was a "JV" team will haunt his legacy, and his frequent comment that ISIS is not an "existential threat to us" -- though perhaps factually correct -- plays into critiques that he has minimized the group's reach.
    Critics argue that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq and to sit on his hands as Syria imploded directly contributed to ISIS' seizure of parts of the fractured nations to form its so-called caliphate.
    Republican Sen. John McCain on Thursday said Obama was "directly responsible" for the Orlando attack because of the withdrawal from Iraq, in remarks that quickly caused an uproar. The Arizona senator later partly walked back the comments, saying he had misspoken by implying the President was personally responsible for the attacks. But he maintained that Obama's policies were to blame for ISIS.
    Obama fires back that the U.S. and allied operation to pound the group in its heartland has taken dozens of terrorists off the battlefield, deflated its resources and trimmed the land it controls.
    But the group's success in becoming a rallying call for terrorists everywhere -- including lone wolf operators who struck Americans in Orlando and San Bernardino, California -- tends to obscure the battlefield gains, and sheds doubt on their sufficiency.
    There is, however, one aspect of his counterterror approach in which Obama does display the more heightened emotion he otherwise shuns: when making the case that his domestic critics could increase America's vulnerability to terrorism.
    On Tuesday, he delivered a jeremiad against Trump's proposals to ban Muslim migration into the United States and his claim that thousands of Muslims already here were consumed by hate for this country, calling them an affront to the idea of America itself that could help ISIS win more recruits.
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    "If we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire region, then we're doing the terrorists' work for them," Obama said on Tuesday.
    He also laid into critics like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who contend that his reluctance to use the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" is proof that he does not understand the nature of the threat, let alone how to confront it.
    That language too, he argued, can be counter-productive as it plays into terrorists' desire to see a civilizational struggle with the West and see the alienation of Muslims in America.
    And he suggested those who still believe he does not get the nature of the threat talk to U.S. Special Forces soldiers he has deployed to war zones or law enforcement officers on U.S. soil or intelligence officers out in the field.
    "They know full well who the enemy is," Obama said, pointedly noting that among those they are keeping safe are "politicians who tweet and appear on cable news shows."