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Why Obama gave an Oval Office address on terrorism without saying anything new

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

When President Obama announced that he'd deliver his third-ever primetime Oval Office address on Sunday night, political insiders feverishly speculated about what he might say. Would he announce some shocking intelligence findings on the San Bernardino attack? Would he roll out sweeping new policy proposals for the fight against ISIS? Would he issue a rousing call for new gun control measures?

But he didn't do any of that.

In plain language, the president restated his view of the war on terror, listed measures the US has already been taking against ISIS, and said Congress should toughen gun laws. Finally, he said the US should avoid another "long and costly ground war," and that Americans shouldn't discriminate against Muslims. And that was it.

Naturally, news hounds were frustrated that there wasn't much "new" or unusual at all in the speech. But as former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote on Twitter, this — a 13-minute address airing in between Sunday night football games — clearly wasn't aimed at an audience of insiders.

A mid-November poll found that Obama's approval rating on fighting ISIS was dismal — 57 percent of Americans disapproved of his performance, and only 35 percent approved. And between the media (appropriately) focusing on the specifics of the San Bernardino and Paris attacks, and Republican presidential candidates' constant criticism that Obama hasn't done enough to fight terror, the administration likely feels that its message hasn't cut through the fog of news.

Obama's key objectives for the speech

So even if the president had nothing incredibly new to say, he wanted to try to accomplish at least three key things.

First, he wanted to assure Americans that he takes the threat of terrorism seriously and that his administration is doing something about it. Rhetorically, he chose to frame the speech as one about terrorism rather than, say, gun violence — and repeatedly used the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" in reference to San Bernardino and similar attacks. And substantively, he argued that the policies his administration is already implementing abroad — airstrikes, training ISIS's opponents, efforts to reach a peace deal in Syria — are the best way to address this threat.

Second, Obama wanted to start framing gun control measures as an important piece of a larger anti-terrorism effort. He did so subtly, and treated guns as simply one piece of a broader problem. But in addition to saying it should be harder for people to buy assault weapons, he called on Congress to "make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun." Commentators are divided about the wisdom of this idea, but it seems to be politically popular. Indeed, shortly after the speech, one Republican swing state senator facing a tough 2016 race — Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — backed the idea, with caveats.

And third, Obama wanted to again push back against Islamophobia. As Max Fisher wrote even before the San Bernardino shootings, there's been a disturbing escalation in anti-Muslim rhetoric from some circles — including from the top-polling Republican presidential candidate, but not limited to him — recently. The shooting obviously won't help this situation, so Obama wanted to reiterate once again, in a high-profile setting, that this "fight" should not be defined as one of "America against Islam."

"It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country," Obama said, rebutting a proposal from some leading Republicans that the US should only admit Syrian refugees who are Christian. "It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently," he said, likely referring to Donald Trump's reprehensible idea that Muslim Americans should be registered.

"Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes," he continued. "And yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that."

These points may have been old hat to political insiders, but the White House clearly felt this message wasn't getting through in the news coverage of recent days — and wanted to try to shore up Obama's sagging terrorist-fighting credentials in the face of intense criticism from Republicans.

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