In quick succession Sunday night, Americans were offered two visions on the modern war on terror.
President Barack Obama, in a prime-time address standing in the Oval Office, told of a fight fully engaged, with victory ahead as long as the nation sticks to its values and doesn’t alienate Muslims. “Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear, that we have always met challenges, whether war or depression, natural disasters or terrorist attacks, by coming together around our common ideals as one nation and one people,” Obama said. “So long as we stay true to that tradition, I have no doubt that America will prevail.”
Moments later, by tweet, press release and cable-news appearances, Republican presidential candidates responded by making clear that the nation was not at the moment united. They argued for new leadership in the White House, squabbled amongst themselves and described in vague terms a vision of a more aggressive military and rhetorical approach to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, which is often referred to by its acronyms, ISIS or ISIL.
“President Obama has finally been forced to abandon the political fantasy he has perpetuated for years that the threat of terrorism was receding,” Jeb Bush said in a statement.
“The reason ISIL exists is because of President Obama, not President Bush,” argued South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who wants the U.S. to deploy 10,000 troops on the ground to lead an army 10 times that size against the group.
In an appearance on Fox News, Florida Senator Marco Rubio recounted stories of meeting Americans who were pushing off travel around New Years or avoiding crowded malls during the holiday shopping season. “I fear [Obama] may have made things worse in the mind of many Americans,” he said, repeating many of the same fears Obama had tried to alleviate.
Republicans quickly focused their criticism on Obama for his focus on gun control and antidiscrimination in his remarks. Rubio declared it “cynicism” while Texas Senator Ted Cruz lambasted Obama for injecting politics into the counterterrorism effort.
“If I am elected President, I will direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS,” Cruz said in a statement. “And I will shut down the broken immigration system that is letting jihadists into our country. Nothing President Obama said tonight will assist in either case.”
On Twitter, GOP front-runner Donald Trump critiqued the production of Obama’s address — the President stood in the Oval Office instead of sitting behind a desk — and the President’s policy of referring to the Islamic State as ISIL, using a less common, but more accurate acronym for the group. “Is that all there is? We need a new President – FAST!” Trump added after the 13-minute address.
Obama spoke before Sunday Night Football in an effort to wrest control once again of the national debate over terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, Calif. He toughened his rhetoric, calling ISIS as a group of “thugs and killer — part of a cult of death.” But even as he pledged intensified efforts against the group, his was a message of staying the course — trusting in a coalition, in American values, and in his own judgment to defeat the group.
In their responses, Republicans also highlighted the ongoing fights within the GOP over whether to accept Syrian refugees as well as the use of controversial government surveillance programs.
In his remarks on Fox News, Rubio criticized Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul for their votes against the bulk collection of telephone metadata by the National Security Agency — a charge Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie echoed earlier Sunday.
Paul, meanwhile, took the opportunity to critique Obama’s defense of accepting Syrian refugees into the U.S., which the President has defended on humanitarian and moral grounds.
“While the President paid lip service to this fight, he plans to keep the failed, current policies in place and allow tens of thousands of refugees to enter our country,” he wrote in a statement. “I couldn’t disagree more strongly. Immigration, visas, and refugees from countries with active terror networks must be halted while we determine how to better secure our borders and our people.”