President Obama spoke more forcefully about ISIS Monday than he did in his primetime address from the Oval Office last week. In a rare appearance at the Defense Department, the president said the U.S.–led military coalition is hitting ISIS "harder than ever" and moving forward with its strategy with "a great sense of urgency.”
"As we squeeze its heart we’ll make it harder for ISIL to sell its propaganda to the world," he said following a meeting at the Pentagon with his national security council, using an alternative name for the terror group.
"ISIL leaders cannot hide and our message to them is 'you are next,'” Obama later added.
While Obama’s remarks were stronger, they contained no new initiatives or steps to defeat ISIS, serving more as an update of the policies he already has in place.
As a result, Obama is almost certain to unleash a new torrent of criticism from Republican lawmakers and presidential hopefuls and make fellow Democrats nervous that he’s not doing enough to eliminate the jihadist group. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) released a statement even before Obama took the podium titled, “The President Goes to the Pentagon. Will Anything Change?" More of those types of questions are bound to follow.
The president touted the nearly 9,000 airstrikes the Western coalition has carried out against ISIS forces and said that U.S.-led forces dropped more ordnance on the group last month than any other time since the campaign began last year.
"In fact, since the summer, ISIL has not had a successful major offensive operation on the ground in Iraq or Syria,” he said, noting extremists have lost 40 percent of the territory they once controlled in Iraq.
But the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, have brought national security concerns to the top of Americans’ minds, forcing Obama to try to convince the public once again that he has the right plan for destroying Islamic extremists. Americans now name terrorism as the most important problem facing the country, according to a new poll. Sixteen percent put terrorism on the top of their list in a Gallup poll released Monday, compared to 13 percent who said government and 9 percent who said the economy were major problems.
“We recognize that progress needs to happen faster,” Obama said Monday.
To that end, he announced that Defense Secretary Ash Carter would leave immediately for the Middle East to try to wring more military contributions from partners in the region. The tour coincides with a trip Secretary of State John Kerry will make to Moscow to discuss the security situation in Syria.
If Obama’s latest attempt to allay the country’s fears about terrorism doesn’t work better than his last speech — if he’s unable to mitigate the doubts surrounding his strategy — he could also boost the number of special forces operators deployed to the region or take a sharper tone with coalition allies. Or he could face more pressure to do something drastic, such as deploying ground troops to Iraq, a move he has ruled out in the past.
Each option carries an inherent risk for the country and the troops involved, but if the polls keep indicating that anxiety levels about terrorism remain as high as it has the past few weeks, Obama faces another risk himself: being viewed as an ineffectual lame duck and becoming a brick around the neck of Democrats in 2016.