Lyndon B. Obama

Lyndon B. Obama
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When it comes to offering progress reports on his war against ISIS, Barack Obama is beginning to sound like a previous wartime Democratic president. It is not a flattering comparison.

Over the past few weeks, Obama has issued several upbeat statements crafted to assure an uneasy American people that the fight against terror is going well, only to have the facts come back and bite him.

He is starting to develop a “credibility gap,” faced by Lyndon Baines Johnson during the Vietnam War. LBJ and his commanders kept telling the nation that the war was going well when it really was not.

“We are pleased with the results we are getting,” Johnson said in an impassioned November 1967 press conference. “We are inflicting greater losses than we are taking.”

Johnson added that it was “an encouraging sign” that decreasing numbers of Vietnamese were living under Communist control. “Overall, we’re making progress,” he added. “We’re satisfied with that progress.”

Sound familiar? It was only last month that Obama told us that ISIS was “contained” in Iraq and Syria. Then came the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. A day later, while in Turkey for the 2015 G-20 Summit, Obama called the carnage “a terrible and sickening setback” in the terror fight. But he quickly added that “we can’t lose sight that there has been progress.”

In a litany remarkably reminiscent of rhetoric that came out of the Johnson administration during Vietnam, Obama went on to optimistically talk about increased airstrikes, limited ISIS territorial gains in Iraq and Syria and better intelligence sharing, analysis and cooperation among allies in the fight.

Obama seemed irritated when reporters pressed him with questions aimed at his once calling ISIS “the jayvee team,” whether he might have “underestimated” the terrorist organization’s reach and strength and the possibility of its launching a deadly attack in the United States.

“We have been fully aware of the potential capabilities of them carrying out a terrorist attack,” Obama testily replied. “That’s precisely why we have been mounting a very aggressive strategy to go after them … We’ve seen much better cooperation between the FBI, state governments, local governments. There is some advantage to geography with respect to the United States.”

Despite the presidential assurances, a terrorist attack on the United States came a little more than two weeks later. A Muslim couple inspired by ISIS shot and killed 14 people and wounded 22 more in a health center in San Bernardino, Calif. It was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since the September 11 attacks more than 14 years ago.

Four days after San Bernardino, with criticism of Obama’s low-key approach to the terrorist fight growing louder, the president delivered a rare, prime-time Oval Office speech to the nation to calm its fears and shore up his image.

“Well, here’s what I want you to know,” a somber Obama said in that December 6 speech. “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.”

A majority of Americans were unconvinced. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken after Obama’s speech showed that 60 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama’s handling of ISIS; 57 percent disapproved of his management of overall foreign policy.

The dismal poll numbers triggered a new round of Obama media events this week. On Monday he motored to the Pentagon to get an update on the terror fight.

“We are hitting [the Islamic State] harder than ever,” Obama declared.

The upbeat confidence-building tour continued Thursday with a presidential visit to the National Counterterrorism Center. Obama assured Americans that the center is doing everything in its power to keep the country safe. But he made no announcement of sending significant numbers of U.S. ground troops to the fight. In this way, Obama does differ from Johnson.

Yet, if the president continues to insist the war is being won in the face of the conflicting facts, his “credibility gap” will only grow wider. Unlike LBJ, it won’t cost him his presidency, but it could tarnish the legacy he has so carefully crafted.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter@benedettopress.

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