Standing behind a lectern and in front of an American flag, President Obama addressed the country for approximately 15 minutes on Sunday night. He spoke about the recent shooting in San Bernardino, California, and what he saw as a "new phase" in the global terrorist threat. Although President Obama had some harsh words for ISIS, he didn't say much to the American people that we hadn't heard before.
With regards to last week's shooting in San Bernardino, Obama called the attack an "act of terror." He did not reveal any new information about the investigation, saying that the FBI was still evaluating the case but that there was still no evidence to suggest that the shooters were part of a larger terrorist network. The president then shifted focus to those large terrorist networks, namely ISIS, to discuss the country's strategy in fighting them. He reiterated once again that he would not seek a ground war in Iraq or Syria, and he vowed to continue air strikes and special operations deployments.
In describing the Islamic State itself, the president said something interesting: "They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death." This one sentence should have set the tone for the entire speech, however it remained buried in the middle of a paragraph (albeit an important one) about the need to distinguish the world's Islam from ISIS' version of Islam.
It's not the first time that Obama has used the term "thugs" to describe a group of people. In April, he called violent protesters in Baltimore "criminals and thugs." Back in September, Obama called ISIS a "network of death" when speaking at the United Nations — similar to Sunday night's description of ISIS as a "cult of death." As a result, you could say that we've heard these words from Obama before too, but at least these words seem to be more in line with what the American people want to hear.
Aside from the "thugs and killers" line, Obama reiterated his unchanged plan for attacking ISIS, and he reiterated his plea to Congress to move forward with gun control. He also called on the American people to remain tolerant of Muslim Americans, which, to be honest, is something he shouldn't even have to say in the first place.
The problem with Obama's speech, then, wasn't necessarily what was said — it was full of great sound bites about freedom and American power — but rather what wasn't said. His refrains of "we will prevail" sounded more fit for another speech, one declaring a full-force war against ISIS, with ground troops and invasions and everything. According to new numbers from CNN, that speech might have been better received by the American people.
On Sunday, a new CNN/ORC poll revealed that a majority of Americans — 53 percent — now say that they support the use of ground troops to fight ISIS. President Obama clearly rejected this tactic, saying that we should not get drawn into a "long and costly ground war" against ISIS. Up until now, all signs pointed to Americans agreeing with him on this point. Perhaps it was last week's attack in California that moved the scale, or it could be a combination of the length of time we've had to hear about ISIS and its violence and the lack of progress we seem to be making, relatively. Either way, 60 percent of Americans currently disapprove of how Obama has handled terrorism — a nine-point increase since May.
Despite the well-delivered, inspirational rhetoric and the much-needed wake-up call to understand the difference between Islam and extremist beliefs, the speech did not come full circle. It begs the question: If ISIS truly is a "cult of death," why aren't we revving up our approach to breaking it down? I don't expect the average American to know more about strategy than the president's team of advisers, but if the hesitancy to deploy ground troops has anything to do with public opinion, then it may be time for the White House to reevaluate.