Obama's do-over on his message to Americans about ISIS

Obama, Hollande pledge solidarity to fight ISIS
Obama, Hollande pledge solidarity to fight ISIS

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Obama, Hollande pledge solidarity to fight ISIS 00:52

Story highlights

  • The President took another crack at giving a pep talk to the American people over the cresting fear of terrorism
  • For all his speech-making skills, Obama has admitted several times publicly that his communication strategy as president has sometimes been lacking

Washington (CNN)Back on U.S. soil, President Barack Obama was looking for a do-over.

The President took another crack at giving a pep talk to the American people over the cresting fear of terrorism and anti-refugee sentiment during a press conference Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande.
The event was designed to display solidarity between the two countries following the recent terror attacks in Paris -- which both presidents made sure it did. But Obama also used it to salve his own political vulnerabilities, exacerbated by sparring matches with reporters during his trip abroad last week that were poorly received at home.
    The President's comments were his most expansive yet on how Americans should view the aftermath of the ISIS-claimed killing spree. But while they might stabilize him politically, they also underscore his deeper struggle to produce a long-term strategy to eliminate the threat from ISIS, which now appears to be turning its sights to terror attacks outside of its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq. And though Obama and Hollande both vowed to intensify air strikes on the extremist group, he offered little new in the way of strategic thinking.
    The President began by delivering a moving tribute to the "joie de vivre" and cultural and historical greatness of France and later warned Russia to stop targeting moderate Syrian rebels in some of his more pointed comments of the event.
    But he also delivered a personal, distinctly political -- if still unifying -- message to Americans, providing the kind of reassurance, national rallying call and quiet resolution critics deemed missing from his appearances while he was in Turkey and Asia last week.

    A direct appeal to Americans

    Indeed, Obama seized the podium at the White House Tuesday and spoke directly to the American as well as French people.
    "Francois, with your understanding, my statement today will be a little longer than usual. I have been traveling and this is an important moment for our nations and for the world," Obama said, in an apparent admission his earlier remarks following the Paris terror attacks 10 days ago had been lacking.
    "What happened in Paris is truly horrific. I understand that people worry that something similar could happen here. I want you to know that we will continue to do everything in our power to defend our nation," Obama said.
    For all his speech-making skills, Obama has admitted several times publicly that his communication strategy as president has sometimes been lacking. On occasion, he has either seemed to underestimate the political impact of an event or required several attempts to craft an appropriate message.
    For example, over Christmas 2009, he struggled to keep up with rapidly evolving news coverage after an al Qaeda operative attempted to bring down a U.S. airliner over Detroit, possibly because he was thousands of miles away from the political tumult enjoying his annual vacation in his native Hawaii.
    Nearly six years on, Obama, who often seems to disdain the more theatrical tasks of the presidency, appears to still have some work to do on presentation. A CBS News poll published on Monday found that 66% of Americans believe that he does not yet have a clear plan for defeating ISIS. And a new Washington Post poll on Tuesday found that the President's approval rating on handling terrorism had toppled to a new low of 40%, down seven points from January. And his overall approval rating has dipped back to 45%, down from 51% in October.
    Obama might have been criticized back home for his initial response to the Paris attacks, but there was no complaint from Hollande, who warmly praised the President's swift vows of support for France in the immediate hours after the assaults.
    "He was the first one to call me," Hollande noted. "It was very late in France, 2.00 a.m. when Barack called -- the President of the United States," Hollande went on, praising Obama for his "emotion, his compassion against the horror."
    On Tuesday, the commander in chief sought to reassure Americans wary that the Paris attacks, which killed more than 120 people, could presage an attempt by ISIS to strike U.S. soil.
    He detailed what he said were "extraordinary measures" taken to strengthen homeland security since the September 11 attacks in 2001 and praised the "tireless" work of security and law enforcement officials dedicated to stopping terror attacks.
    Then, seeking to stiffen national resolve, Obama argued that every American had a role to play in defeating ISIS and other terrorist groups and that they could make a contribution simply in the way they respond to threats.
    "Even as we are vigilant, we cannot and we will not succumb to fear, nor can we allow fear to divide us, for that's how terrorists win," he said. "We cannot give them the victory of changing how we go about living our lives."
    The President did not name Republican presidential candidates, but his comments were a clear denunciation of the warnings issued by Republican candidates about a rising threat from terrorism that have rocked the 2016 presidential race since the Paris attacks.

    GOP criticism

    Even as Obama spoke, one GOP candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was accusing the President of forgetting the lessons of 9/11 and faulted him for referring to ISIS at a press conference in Asia on Sunday as "a group of killers who are good at social media."
    "I would be fascinated to see the President go to Paris and speak to the families who lost their loved ones ... days ago and tell them that ISIS is just a group of killers who are good at social media," Christie told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
    Another Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, also argued that American leadership in the world was lacking under Obama, saying that the shooting down of a Russian warplane by Turkey along its border with Syria was a symptom of a "world rife with insecurity."
    But Obama avoided the harsh partisan tone he adopted while abroad, subtly parrying opposing positions rather than directly engaging them. He kept his tone elevated and did not explicitly call out the GOP, in contrast to the lashing he gave Republicans last week for being scared of three-year-old Syrian orphans destined to enter the country as refugees and accusing them of being a "potent recruitment tool" for ISIS.
    On Tuesday, he still implied that the party's position on barring refugees from the United States, based on fears that ISIS extremists could try to hide among those seeking entrance, ran counter to the values that underpinned both the United States and France.
    But instead of stigmatizing critics, the President appeared to be appealing to the better angles of his nation's nature, and a wider humanitarian impulse to help people fleeing tyranny or war in their homelands.
    "Each of us, all of us, must show that America is strengthened by people of every faith and every background," Obama said, apparently referring to calls by Republican front-runner Donald Trump to consider monitoring Muslim Americans and closing some mosques.
    Obama also noted that France was still planning to admit 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years -- three times the U.S. amount.
    "On the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France, there are words we know so well: 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,' Obama said. "That's the spirit that makes us Americans. That's the spirit that binds us to France. That's the spirit we need today."
    Obama was also criticized last week for failing to offer a sharper definition of certain victory over ISIS, in the way that previous presidents have predicted the demise of American foes to rally public opinion.
    Back on U.S. soil, in a high-stakes press conference, he didn't make that error again.
    "President Hollande, my fellow Americans, let's remember we face greater threats to our way of life before. Fascism, communism, a First World War, a Second, a long Cold War, each and every time, we prevailed," Obama said. "Make no mistake: We will win and groups like ISIL will lose."