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Politics In The News: Obama Urges Americans Not To Give In To Fear

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the Oval Office last night, President Obama looked at the camera and made four big points.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

He said the United States faces a new kind of terrorist threat.

INSKEEP: He argued his strategy against ISIS will work.

GREENE: He challenged his critics to get on board and act.

INSKEEP: And he urged Americans not to surrender to fear. Let's take a close listen to each of those points with Cokie Roberts, who joins most Mondays. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi - hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And also David Ignatius, longtime writer on national security for The Washington Post. David, good morning to you.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now, first the president said the U.S. is getting better at stopping complex attacks like 9/11, people inspired by ISIS - terrorists - are aiming for a different kind of attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Terrorists turn to less complicated acts of violence, like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society. It is this type of attack that we saw at Fort Hood in 2009, in Chattanooga earlier this year and now in San Bernardino.

INSKEEP: Cokie, how different is this kind of threat?

ROBERTS: Well, it's clearly one that's very hard to guard against. And saying that we're going to destroy ISIS - or in Donald Trump's words bomb the bleep out of them - doesn't really get to these independent operators, and that's the problem.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius, do national security officials that you talk with know what to do about this kind of threat?

IGNATIUS: They're still struggling. This is a problem largely of self-motivated people who are now swimming in a sea of propaganda, calls to jihad that people say if you can't come to the state, if you can't be in the caliphate, fight where you are. Fight in the city, town where you live. And we're seeing examples of people doing just that.

INSKEEP: And is this something where all the communications, technology the United States has, all the ability to monitor people just is useless because there's not really a trail to follow?

IGNATIUS: They're ought...

ROBERTS: Well...

IGNATIUS: ...To be more trails, I think. I'm surprised that the FBI was not able to pick up the kinds of contacts these people seem to have made. But we'll know more about that in coming weeks.

ROBERTS: And you're hearing the president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling on social media organizations to help in this regard because there are postings on Facebook, for instance, that could be helpful.

INSKEEP: OK, so the president also defended his strategy. He said he's going to intensify strikes against ISIS abroad and improve security at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: We will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius, did his argument inspire confidence?

IGNATIUS: It was a speech that reassured the country that he has a strategy. But to me it left out the key element in that strategy. The president says we are going to depend on Sunni ground forces to do the fighting on the ground for us. But he did not explain why a year later we still don't have those forces. As I look at the strategy, that's the black box, that's the thing that's asserted to be important but you never see. And the president's going to have to not just explain it, but I think figure it out.

INSKEEP: Well, Cokie, does the president have the country behind him?

ROBERTS: No, 40 percent in the last poll said that they approved of his handling of terrorism, and that was before San Bernardino. And this morning New York Daily News has a big headline - giant headline that says everything is awesome, very sarcastically with pictures of puppies. So I think that, you know, there's a lot more convincing to do on the part of the president.

INSKEEP: The president had some interesting words for his critics though because Republicans - some of them on the campaign and elsewhere said that there should be a declaration of war. We should be more overtly at war against this enemy. And President Obama effectively dared them to do it last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: If Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.

INSKEEP: Not a formal declaration of war, but there is this talk about an authorization for the use of military force. Why haven't they already voted on that?

ROBERTS: Well, because one group of Republicans doesn't want to give the president authority to do anything - walk down the hall. But there's also group of liberals who thinks it might give him too much authority. So they've been locked in an ability to get anywhere on this.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius, is there a serious alternative out there to the president's strategy?

IGNATIUS: I think the core message the president gave that we're going to need to be patient and unified is correct. Saying that in this country that is so impatient and polarized sounds sometimes impossible. I do think the president's right, we're at war. And some of the shrill super-partisan attacks that have been made - irresponsible attacks, some of them - really have got to stop. The country can't afford them.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to one other point that President Obama made last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death. And they account for a tiny fraction of a more than a billion Muslims around the world, including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology.

INSKEEP: OK, why was it important to the president to make that final point about patriotic Muslim Americans?

ROBERTS: Well, because I think there has been on the campaign trail, particularly among some Republican candidates, an attack against Muslims. And they keep insisting that the president talk about radical Islam. And the truth is, is that that has marginalized many Muslims in this country and made them feel very, very nervous about their tenure as Americans.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius, how significant is it whether you call it terrorism or radical Islamic terrorism or one of the other phrases that the president's critics have demanded?

IGNATIUS: Partly those are semantics questions. But what does matter is whether the commander-in-chief leads Muslim Americans and Muslims around the world to feel that they are the target, this is a war against them. The president is absolutely right that our security - not just our values, but our security in this very toxic environment depends on Muslims working with FBI and law enforcement - telling people what they know, telling people when they see a young person in the community who is acting differently. And the president is trying to keep those lines open at a time when, I have to say, a lot of GOP politicians are trying to close them.

ROBERTS: Well, that's - I agree completely. But I also think it's important that he used the word thugs and killers because that was the strongest language that he has used so far and people were looking for something strong from him.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's Cokie Roberts and David Ignatius this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.