A senior administration official told reporters Sunday that it was Friday when Obama decided he needed to speak. “We recognized that there are very real and legitimate fears in the United States and around the world about the nature of this terrorist threat,” said the official, adding, “Given those fears and given peoples’ concerns about this threat, and given the San Bernardino attack, the president made a determination at the end of the work week on Friday that he would go out and address broadly the threat that we are facing and provide the American people with a clear sense of how we need to deal with this threat as a country.”
If that was the goal, the question is whether the president succeeded in giving that “clear sense” of how to defeat the enemy. The simplest answer is that Obama pledged victory but said the best way to get there is with more of the same—more air strikes, more coordination with allies, more involvement by Muslim nations, more training of the Iraqi and Syrian fighters on the ground.
Earlier in the day, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential contender, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week that she hoped the president would lay out “an intensification of the existing strategy.” That turned out to be accurate. Clinton also added pressure before the speech, flatly declaring, “We’re not winning.”
It was Obama’s job to counter that, to declare that victory will come someday. He acknowledged that “many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.” His response was one of the best moments of the speech. Instead of his usual rhetoric about “degrading” the enemy, the president stated firmly, “The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”
His low point may have come when he insisted on veering into gun control. If the point of the speech was to unite the country and bring an anxious nation together, bringing up one of the most divisive domestic political issues is not a great way to do that—particularly when the administration has struggled to explain how the usual items on their gun agenda such as gun-show restrictions and better background checks would have made any difference in San Bernardino.
The president, though, quickly went from partisan to president with a strong appeal for fair treatment for American Muslims. “Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our coworkers, our sports heroes,” said the president, summoning the best of America and countering the often-ugly demagoguery heard on the campaign trail. But he wasn’t just asking Americans to avoid discrimination because it is the right thing to do. He also made perhaps his most effective pitch that it is also the smart thing to do because it will make it easier to isolate extremist Muslims and win the war.
There also was a nice touch hidden in his conclusion. Here was a president often battered by his critics for allegedly not believing in American exceptionalism sending a message to the Republicans campaigning for his job: “Let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional.”