President Obama tried to reassure Americans on Sunday night that he has the right plan to defeat the Islamic State, using a rare prime-time Oval Office address to urge the public not to take revenge on Muslim Americans in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 2001.
The president didn’t lay out any broad new strategies for defeating the Islamic State, saying the U.S.-led coalition is intensifying its airstrikes against the militants in Syria and Iraq and stepping up military aid to local ground forces. He also called on Congress to approve new restrictions on guns that he said would make it harder for terrorists to get weapons in the U.S., an action that Republican lawmakers have already rejected.
“As commander in chief, I have no greater responsibility than the security of the American people,” Mr. Obama said in a somber 13-minute address. “The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it.”
Mr. Obama delivered the address four days after a radicalized Islamist husband-and-wife team wielding semiautomatic weapons killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, and wounded 21 others. Investigators say the couple were inspired by the Islamic State terrorist group, and the attack has only fueled the debate over how best to fight radical Islamic terrorists and their supporters in the U.S.
Mr. Obama urged lawmakers to restrict ownership of semi-automatic firearms, saying, “What we can do, and must do, is make it harder for them to kill.”
But House Speaker Paul D. Ryan was one of a number of top Republicans who quickly panned Mr. Obama’s remarks, calling the president’s address “so disappointing” because it failed to offer anything new in the fight against the Islamic State.
“No new plan, just a half-hearted attempt to defend and distract from a failing policy,” Mr. Ryan said minutes after Mr. Obama finished speaking. “The horrific events of recent weeks remind us that any hope to contain [the Islamic State] has been a failure.”
The Wisconsin Republican added, “Until we hear from the president what more can be done — with our military, our intelligence-gathering, and our international partners — we will remain one step behind our enemy. This is not just the next president’s problem. It is our problem, and we must confront it today.”
Concerns about terrorism have been on the rise since the Islamic State’s coordinated attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 120. The debate over national security has shifted the landscape in the 2016 presidential campaign, and Mr. Obama has struggled to convince Americans that he has an effective strategy for destroying the extremist group.
Polling shows voters have record low confidence in Mr. Obama’s ability to handle the problem, with about two-thirds saying he lacks an effective strategy for defeating the Islamic State in its home base in Iraq and Syria.
The president devoted a portion of his address to urging non-Muslims in the U.S. not to demonize all Muslims because of the acts of the Islamist terrorists. He said a divided America would help the Islamic State by fostering more “home-grown” terrorism and hurt efforts to defeat the militants’ ideology.
“We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam,” Mr. Obama said. “ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world — including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology.”
He added, “If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate,” Mr. Obama said.
A ‘real problem’ for Muslims
The president did adopt a more direct tone by calling on Muslims both here and abroad to more forcefully to reject extremist ideology. He said refraining from discrimination against Muslims “does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities.”
“There’s a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse,” Mr. Obama said. “Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like [the Islamic State] and al Qaeda promote.”
Without mentioning them by name, the president criticized Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump for appearing to endorse a proposal to register Muslim Americans and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for backing a proposal to prevent Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. because of fears terrorists can infiltrate their ranks.
Mr. Trump responded to the president’s address on Twitter, saying, “Is that all there is? We need a new President - FAST!”
Mr. Trump also commented, “Well, Obama refused to say (he just can’t say it), that we are at WAR with RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISTS.”
Underscoring the heightened importance of the event, it was only the third Oval Office address of Mr. Obama’s presidency, with the last coming five years ago at the end of the Iraq War. The other address concerned the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The president took several swipes at the Republican-controlled Congress and at GOP presidential candidates, saying that lawmakers should vote on a new authorization of military force against the Islamic State and gun control measures.
“For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of airstrikes against ISIL targets,” Mr. Obama said. “I think it’s time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united and committed to this fight.”
But the White House acknowledged the president erred in his address by saying he had ordered a review of “the visa waiver program under which the female terrorist in San Bernardino originally came to this country.” The female terrorist, Tashfeen Malik, a native of Pakistan, came to the U.S. on a so-called “fiancee” or K-1 visa, not under the waiver program that applies mainly to European countries.
Mr. Obama said authorities must work more closely with high-tech companies to stop digital technology that allows militants to plot attacks undetected on social media.
A week after the Paris attacks, Mr. Obama began urging Americans not to “succumb to fear” and to “settle down” about his plan to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq in 2016. A veto-proof bipartisan majority in the House has voted to delay the program until security concerns are addressed, although the Senate hasn’t acted on the measure.
Senate Republicans blocked an amendment last week that would have banned people on the “no-fly” list from purchasing guns.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, said Sunday that people on the no-fly list should still be able to purchase guns because the list is full of “everyday Americans” who are on it by accident.
“The majority of the people on the no-fly list are often times people that just basically have the same name as somebody else, who doesn’t belong on the no-fly list,” Mr. Rubio said on CNN’s State of the Union. “Former Senator Ted Kennedy once said he was on a no-fly list. There are journalists on the no-fly list.”
Another Republican presidential candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, said the White House is using gun control as a “false argument … to dodge the real issue” of Islamic jihadism.
Mr. Obama reiterated his opposition to deploying U.S. ground troops in Syria or Iraq to fight the extremists.
“We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria,” he said. “That’s what groups like ISIL want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.”