Obama’s talk short on details, but mostly set the right tone

President Obama addressed ISIS and terrorism in a nationally televised talk on Sunday.
President Obama addressed ISIS and terrorism in a nationally televised talk on Sunday. AP

Call President Obama’s talk from the Oval Office his version of a fireside chat. Without the fire. In these situations, Mr. Obama most often opts for the slow smolder. Americans are frightened, angry and feeling a lot like soft targets. Mr. Obama was rightly compelled to address the crush of hostility, fear, confusion and the search for solutions to his national — and international — audience.

Of course, there’s stagecraft, and then there’s substance. And on that score the president presented what looked and sounded like a steady hand on the nation’s rudder as it engages and pursues, in particular, the murderous members of ISIS.

But, in fact, he broke no new ground, and truth be told, he didn’t make the most persuasive case that his strategy for breaking ISIS’ back is the right one. And now that it’s abundantly clear that ISIS-created terrorism isn’t just “over there,” Americans want a full-throated cry around which to rally. That wasn’t forthcoming. Even he said Sunday evening that, “Our success won’t depend on tough talk.”

Still, he by and large hit the right tone and said what needed to be said. Mr. Obama assured the country that the U.S. military continues to “hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary.”

In fact, the Obama administration is quietly ratcheting up the intensity of its war against ISIS, announcing last week that it will deploy special-operations troops to Iraq and Syria to pursue Islamist extremists. This is a shift, and not a very subtle one.

It’s most definitely “boots on the ground” — though only about 150, for now. That’s something that the president has insisted was not going to happen. No, this isn’t like George W. Bush’s full-on, head-long charge into Iraq. But it does follow President Bush’s script in one way: Teams conducted raids against al Qaida in Iraq, gathering intelligence that helped propel their mission.

The Obama administration says, however, that its special-ops forces will be sussing out ISIS targets for the air campaign.

The president has some more reassuring to do: that this is not the dreaded slippery slope. The United States cannot be goaded into a fight in Syria. That’s just what the enemy wants, and we should have learned by now that fighting a war that is not in our best interests is futile and dangerous.

Mr. Obama also challenged Congress to approve legal authorization for the U.S. military campaign that began last year. It’s the best way for this nation to present a united front against terrorism. This is not “Mr. Obama’s war.” But lawmakers are irresponsibly sitting it out, throwing rotten tomatoes from the stands, but otherwise offering little in the name of engaging, much less winning, this fight. And with an all-important election looming, only a fool would expect any movement.

Mr. Obama’s opponents continue to turn a blind eye to the terror from within, which, of course, is inextricably tied to terror from beyond our borders. In the wake of the massacre in San Bernardino, gun control — which the president included in his talk — and who has access to weapons remains a deadly non-starter in Congress. The shooters, thought to have been radicalized Muslims, had a cache of weapons that pointed to the possibility of more mayhem.

Mr. Obama strove to keep the nation focused on those who mean us harm, steering citizens away from painting Muslims with the broad brush of terrorism.

Given that presidential candidate and flame-thrower Donald Trump on Monday called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” maybe Mr. Obama’s lack of fiery rhetoric Sunday was just the tonic the nation needs.