Put simply, the president’s credibility was on the line. Last month in Turkey, Obama testily brushed back repeated questioning from reporters that he underestimated the threat that ISIS posed. Only a day before the ISIS attacks in Paris, Obama confidently proclaimed that the terrorist group was “contained.” In the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, Obama told CBS News that “our homeland has never been more protected by more effective intelligence and law-enforcement professionals at every level than they are now.”
When the president’s assurances are being contradicted by events around him, even his own party’s rank-and-file become restive. Democratic voters, mostly supportive of the president, are expressing real concerns about the administration’s handling of terrorism. A 43-percent plurality of Democratic voters believe the U.S. and its allies are “losing” the war against ISIS, according to a Quinnipiac poll conducted just before the San Bernardino attack. A whopping 75 percent of Democrats said it’s likely there will be another major terrorist attack on American soil, and 23 percent disapprove of President Obama’s handling of terrorism.
This is unusual. In the wake of traumatic events, even unpopular presidents tend to find success by calling for national unity. After the Oklahoma City bombings in April 1995, President Clinton’s job approval ratings rose above 50 percent for the first time in nearly a year, according to Gallup’s tracking poll. George W. Bush’s approval reached 90 percent right after the Sept. 11 attacks. These moments were both short-lived, but proved that the public rallies behind a president after frightening tragedies.
But instead of acting as a commander in chief, Obama has become a polarizer in chief. Immediately after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, both of which provided him an opportunity to reset his antiterrorism policies, he instead chose to find “wedge” issues that he could use to attack Republicans. After he was hounded by the press over downplaying the ISIS threat, he nimbly switched the subject to the GOP’s heartlessness on the question of taking in Syrian refugees, a counterpunch that drew substantial press coverage. In the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino attacks, he downplayed the terrorist connections and amplified his call for additional gun control. Following the president’s lead, Senate Democrats then tried to put Republicans on the defensive over their fidelity to gun rights by voting to ban people on the no-fly list from purchasing guns. Agree or disagree with those policies, but both were a deliberate distraction from the urgent issue at hand—how to combat ISIS, at home and abroad.
These tactics are consistent with the White House’s view on how Democrats should campaign to win elections: mobilize Obama’s liberal coalition, and highlight the GOP’s most extreme voices to win over persuadable voters. Given Donald Trump’s increasingly inflammatory pronouncements, it’s easy to understand the savvy—and cynical—strategy behind the Democrats’ approach. (Trump’s latest scheme, which calls for the United States to bar Muslims from entering the country, is an example of how polarization can fuel even-more-extreme polarization.)