HONOLULU—President Barack Obama says criticism of his strategy to combat the Islamic State (ISIS) is legitimate and failure to keep the public informed has contributed to fears that not enough is being done.
In a year-end interview with NPR News, Obama says the most damage the group can do to the U.S. is to force Americans to change how they live or what they believe in.
“I think that there is a legitimate criticism of what I’ve been doing and our administration has been doing in the sense that we haven’t, you know, on a regular basis I think described all the work that we’ve been doing for more than a year now to defeat ISIL,” the president said in the interview released Monday, referring to ISIS by one of its acronyms.
Obama says that if people don’t know about the thousands of airstrikes that have been launched against ISIS targets since August 2014, or aren’t aware that towns in Iraq once controlled by the group have been retaken, “then they might feel as if there’s not enough of a response.”
“And so part of our goal here is to make sure that people are informed about all the actions that we’re taking,” he said.
To that end, Obama outlined the strategy against ISIS in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office on Dec. 6, days after a radicalized married couple who had pledged allegiance to an ISIS leader opened fire on the husband’s co-workers in San Bernardino, Calif., killing 14 and heightening people’s fears about home-grown extremism.
ISIS claimed responsibility for a series of attacks that killed 130 people in Paris about two weeks before the California shooting.
Obama also said that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is exploiting economic anxiety among workers, particularly among “blue-collar men” with some of his rhetoric. Trump has argued for temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States, and has made inflammatory comments about Hispanics and others.
With economic stresses and flat wages, Obama said, “there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear. Some of it justified but just misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that,” Obama said. “That’s what he’s exploiting during the course of his campaign.”
Before leaving Washington for his annual Christmas vacation in Hawaii, Obama tried to soothe the public’s anxieties about attacks on the U.S. through a series of public appearances with members of his national security team following separate briefings on ISIS and on potential threats to the U.S. homeland.
After one of those briefings, which took place at the National Counterterrorism Center, Obama said publicly that officials had no specific, credible information suggesting a potential attack against the U.S. He urged people to be vigilant during the holidays.
In the interview, Obama also urged keeping the situation in perspective, saying that ISIS “is not an organization that can destroy the United States.”
“But they can hurt us, and they can hurt our people and our families. And so I understand why people are worried,” he said. “The most damage they can do, though, is if they start changing how we live and what our values are, and part of my message over the next 14 months or 13 months that I remain in office is to just make sure that we remember who we are and make sure that our resilience, our values, our unity are maintained.,”
“If we do that then ISIL will be defeated,” Obama said.
In other subjects discussed in the wide-ranging interview, Obama said:
- Democrats have a “good chance” of regaining control of the Senate in the 2016 elections.
- Campus activism is a “good thing,” but protesters should be open to hearing opposing viewpoints when presented “respectfully and reasonably,” instead of just trying to shut them down.
- The “specific virulence” of some of the opposition directed at him “may be explained by the particulars of who I am.”