Obama Steps Up Talk on ISIS: "You Are Next"

Obama Steps Up Talk on ISIS: "You Are Next"
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President Obama on Monday confronted the same domestic question that presidential candidates in both parties have found challenging.

In the wake of terror massacres in Paris and California, what mix of rhetoric and policy can allay public fears without seeming too wishy-washy, too outlandish, or reminiscent of smoke-'em-out George W. Bush?

Donald Trump’s pledge to bar Muslims from the United States was opposed by a majority of the public. But pollsters say many Americans favor Trump’s seeming decisiveness and find themselves attracted to the real estate mogul’s swagger.

Obama decided to rev up the script in a new setting, the Pentagon, with a U.S. government cast of 33 senior officials as his backdrop. His language Monday was muscular, full of sound bites, and a remarkable echo of Bush in the months after 9/11. 

“ISIL leaders cannot hide,” Obama said, using an acronym for the extremist network also known as ISIS or Daesh. “And our next message to them is simple: You are next.” 

Six months after al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in the United States, Bush offered a counterterrorism update from the South Lawn.

“Every terrorist must be made to live as an international fugitive, with no place to settle or organize, no place to hide,” Bush said in 2002. 

Obama’s recent assurances about having “contained” ISIS geographically, voiced during an interview prior to the San Bernardino shooting deaths of 14 people, were amended to address public anxieties head-on. The president also has faced deep criticism from Republicans for not being tough enough on the ISIS threat.

About one in six Americans say terrorism is the most important issue facing the country, indicating a steep spike in concern following the Paris and California attacks, according to a Gallup poll conducted Dec. 2-6. More worrisome for the president is public concern that the administration is not up to the task of keeping the homeland safe. 

“Americans' trust in the government to protect them from terrorism is the lowest Gallup has measured,” Gallup survey experts wrote.

On Thursday, before he leaves to celebrate the holidays in Hawaii, Obama is scheduled to visit the National Counterterrorism Center to focus public attention on government-wide efforts to prevent terror attacks in the United States.

Hillary Clinton, buffeted by Trump’s blanket pronouncements and the president’s complex air-strikes-plus-diplomacy approach to defeating ISIS over a period of years, will outline her own counterterrorism policies during a speech Tuesday at the University of Minnesota. As a former secretary of state and a senator who voted for the war in Iraq, Clinton is acutely conscious of partisan divisions that made Democrats especially eager to end the U.S.-led conflicts in the Middle East.

During remarks at a national immigration conference Monday in Brooklyn, Clinton also vowed to support legal immigrants, as well as the millions of undocumented families already living in the United States. She said she would continue Obama’s controversial deportation enforcement waivers for so-called DREAMers and parents of undocumented children brought to the United States, if elected president. 

“You can count on me,” she said, while taking aim at GOP rivals Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio.

The president on Tuesday will show support for new U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives and  Records Administration. (Lorella Praeli, the Clinton campaign's director of Latino outreach, will become a citizen.)

Also this week, senior White House officials are meeting with Muslim and other religious leaders and groups that advocate for religious freedom, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy may not have changed much in recent weeks, but the way he explained the war Monday evoked stark images of good and evil, of victory and defeat, of American values coupled with shock-and-awe bombing.

The United States and coalition partners are killing ISIS leaders, the president said. He listed some of the dead, including the black-clothed British executioner known as “Jihadi John,” confirming his demise. In giving them names and identities, Obama took on al-Qaeda’s offshoot network in the way Bush did -- by personalizing his war against terror.

“Abu Sayyaf, one of their top leaders; Haji Mutazz, ISIL’s second-in command; Junaid Hussain, a top online recruiter; Mohamed Emwazi, who brutally murdered Americans and others; and in recent weeks, finance chief Abu Saleh; senior extortionist Abu Maryam; and weapons trafficker Abu Rahman al-Tunisi,” Obama said as he read from a list. 

“More people are seeing ISIL for the thugs and the thieves and the killers that they are,” he added.

For the first time, Obama also disclosed that a small cadre of U.S. Special Forces are on the battlefield in Syria, approved five weeks ago by the commander in chief on advice from his top Pentagon advisers. 

“The Special Forces that I ordered to Syria have begun supporting local forces as they push south, cut off supply lines and tighten the squeeze on Raqqa,” he said, referring to the Syrian city known as the ISIS capital.

Heralding the bravery and effectiveness of America’s military, Obama thanked U.S. forces and promised victory.

“Because of you, I am confident that we are going to prevail,” he said at the Defense Department.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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