The unofficial theme of President Barack Obama’s week is the fight against the Islamic State, but there are questions whether the public will give him a do-over after his recent prime-time address fell flat.
Obama made a rare appearance Monday in the Pentagon briefing room, warning leaders of the group “you’re next” after ticking off a list of their predecessors killed by U.S. and coalition air strikes.
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It was the first of two such visits this week, with Obama scheduled to huddle Thursday with officials at the National Counterterrorism Center. The visits come as the White House deals with an increasingly skeptical public following attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., and a week after his prime-time address was panned.
John Feehery, a GOP political strategist, believes the White House appears to “understand the Oval Office address was kind of a bummer, for a variety of reasons.”
“I think there’s a lot of anxiety about ISIS and immigrants in general. They have to catch up to it,” Feehery said. “But the problem for the White House is you don’t get a mulligan for an Oval Office speech in prime time, when people don’t have much of a choice but to watch. These kinds of [visits] in the middle of day don’t help, because no one really sees them.”
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White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest described the message of this week's meetings as letting people know administration officials are “hard at work” on a strategy to defeat ISIS.
But some experts say the White House is trying to bounce back after Obama’s poorly received Dec. 6 Oval Office address about the fight against terrorism.
“The president needs to demonstrate more strength and resolve,” said Melissa Dalton, a former Defense Department official. “I think that’s where some changes are going to be made, not necessarily changes to the actual strategy in the Middle East."
The two visits represent a “recalibration” of the Obama administration’s approach, which also likely will include “increased transnational efforts,” said Dalton, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The president largely has refrained from the bold rhetoric about violent Islamic extremist group used by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and many GOP lawmakers. But that changed Monday, as the White House tried to use the commander in chief’s words to move the needle of public of opinion back in his direction.
"ISIL leaders cannot hide, and our next message to them is simple: You are next," Obama said, using one of a number of acronyms for the group.
"Every day, we destroy as well more of ISIL's forces — their fighting positions, bunkers, and staging areas; their heavy weapons, bomb-making factories, compounds and training camps," Obama said, adding the group has been striped of 40 percent of its territory.
"In many places, ISIL has lost its freedom of maneuver because they know if they mass their forces, we will wipe them out," he said.
The president’s tougher talk comes as a recent CNN/ORC survey found 68 percent of Americans are unsatisfied with his handling of the ISIS conflict. What’s more, 53 percent of respondents to that poll said U.S. ground combat troops — something which Obama strongly opposes — are required to defeat ISIS.
To swing the needle in the president’s direction, Feehery said there is little Obama can do. After all, he already has tried the Oval Office address, one of the most powerful arrows in a president’s quiver.
“I think it will take time without another incident. Or maybe hauling in a ring of ISIS supporters here at home, but not something internationally. San Bernardino and Paris showed people this can happen anywhere,” he said. “Knocking off a few ISIS guys with a bomb in the middle of the desert in Syria isn’t going to have the same effect.”
Obama's altered "tone and the tenor" at the Pentagon likely will continue, Dalton said.
The White House was firm Monday that public opinion did not influence this week’s schedule. When Obama huddles with his top national security aides, he is not calling them together because of thinking about public opinion polls, Earnest said.
That answer came as Obama’s chief spokesman deflected a question about whether recent surveys of the public — which show around 60 percent of respondents are skeptical of Obama’s counter-ISIS strategy — fueled the Pentagon and NCTC visits.
Senior Republican lawmakers did not wait for Obama to enter the Pentagon briefing room before panning his counter-ISIS strategy anew.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called on Obama to “admit his strategy isn’t working and do something different.”
“The American people are smart enough to know when something is working or not, and it’s obvious that the President’s current strategy isn’t working,” he said in a statement. “Far from being contained — much less defeated — ISIS has now extended the reach of its terror farther than ever before. And the longer ISIS continues to exist in the face of opposition, the more they can recruit, radicalize, and grow.
“It’s no wonder that following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, terrorism now tops the list of what the American people are most concerned about,” McCarthy added.
Sen. Thom Tillis, an Armed Services Committee member, called the Pentagon visit a "photo-op." In a statement, he said Obama "offered nothing more than empty platitudes and tough talk on ISIS, and once again failed to outline a comprehensive strategy to defeat radical Islamic terrorism."
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