"Here's what I want you to know: The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won't depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That's what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power."
Dec. 7, 201513:01
It's true that for many of the most engaged observers, last night's remarks broke little new policy ground, but Beltway pundits and Republican presidential candidates probably weren't the intended audience. Rather, Obama was speaking to a broad American mainstream, which includes folks who may be asking questions like, "Why aren't we going after ISIS?" and "Do we have a strategy to deal with the threat?"
You and I may know the answers to those questions, but the president directed his message to those who don't necessarily follow public affairs closely.
The four-part plan includes familiar tenets: a continued military offensive against ISIS targets; training and equipment support to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting on the ground; strengthening an international coalition; and pursuing a political resolution to the Syrian war.
It's a detail that goes largely overlooked, but many of the leading Republican presidential candidates have sketched out their plans for U.S. policy towards ISIS -- and they look awfully similar to what Obama presented last night. Change some of the rhetoric -- add more chest-thumping bravado -- and take out some of the president's calls for preventing gun violence, and the simple truth is that the Obama administration's plan is largely indistinguishable from many GOP plans.
But presenting this policy vision wasn't the sole point of the Oval Office address.
The president challenged Congress to limit suspected terrorists' access to guns and to authorize the military offensive against ISIS that began nearly a year and a half ago. He challenged Muslim leaders to "continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity."
And he challenged Americans of every stripe not to give into fear and embrace discriminatory attitudes. Obama made the appeal on principle, but just as importantly, he made clear that respect for diversity can be part of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. "It's our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently," the president explained. "Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL.... Let's not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear."
Broadly speaking, this apparently wasn't what the right and many pundits wanted to hear. It seems Obama's critics see a president with a steady hand, showing grace under fire, and it leaves them unsatisfied. The president's detractors demand more righteous fury, and less calm, resilient leadership.
Slate's Fred Kaplan added over night that the question is now "whether common sense and an awareness of limits still have a place in American politics." If some of the initial reactions last night are any indication, the answer may prove to be discouraging.