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Obama's rare Oval Office address to the nation: what he said and what he meant

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Barack Obama gave a rare address from the Oval Office Sunday evening to calm the country's collective nerves after the San Bernardino attacks, acknowledging the real threat of terrorism but defending his administration's ability to combat it.

The last time Obama spoke during primetime on Sunday night was to announce the death of Osama bin Laden. But this address didn't contain that kind of bombshell news. Instead, the president defended his existing anti-terror policies and asked Congress to consider gun reform measures.

He also explicitly condemned Islamophobic backlashes. It was a call for calm and for unity.

"We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam," Obama said. "I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history."

Obama wanted to convince the American public, after all of the panicked commentary about ISIS in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, that there's no need for escalation — and that taking more drastic steps to fight ISIS might, in some very concrete ways, actually help the militant group. It's the sort of plea that has defined much of Obama's restrained approach to foreign policy.

What Obama said: Here's my ISIS strategy, and I'm not changing it

If you take a close look at Obama's actual speech, something immediately pops out: He defends existing policies or calls for new ones he already supports.

After confirming that the San Bernardino shooters were, in fact, inspired by ISIS at the beginning, he described his plan for defeating ISIS in four parts:

  1. Continue the bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria: "In Iraq and Syria, airstrikes are taking out [ISIS] leaders, heavy weapons, oil tankers, infrastructure."
  2. Help ISIS's enemies: "We will continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting [ISIS] on the ground so that we take away their safe havens."
  3. Work with allies to prevent ISIS's ability to conduct attacks abroad: "Since the attacks in Paris, we’ve surged intelligence sharing with our European allies. We’re working with Turkey to seal its border with Syria."
  4. Broker a solution to the civil war in Syria: "Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies, but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying [ISIS] — a group that threatens us all."

"The strategy that we are using now — airstrikes, special forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country — that is how we’ll achieve a more sustainable victory," he said.

After the section on military strategy, Obama called on Congress to authorize the use of force for the ISIS war and called for new gun control reforms, including barring anyone on the no-fly list from buying a gun.

"My fellow Americans, these are the steps that we can take together to defeat the terrorist threat," he said. "Let me now say a word about what we should not do."

Obama's caution against overreaction and Islamophobia

Obama also clearly stated what he won't do to fight terrorism: send in more ground troops.

Obama warned, in visceral terms, against deploying combat troops to fight ISIS. "That’s what groups like [ISIS] want," he said, and explained why:

They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.

Likewise, he urged Americans against giving into their worst impulse when it came to Muslims living in America.

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

What Obama is going for: a "fear itself" moment

The big picture reason for giving this speech is pretty clear: Obama is worried that the San Bernardino attacks will fuel a national panic about terrorism, one that could lead to a potentially counterproductive overreaction. And while he can't do anything about rhetoric in the Republican presidential primary, he can try to reach out to the American public directly.

Avoiding disastrous mistakes is one of Obama's foundational principles: After speaking to the president in February, Vox's Matt Yglesias called it his "foreign policy undoctrine."

This is particularly true when it comes to terrorism. Obama was elected in 2008 on the wave of anger at the Iraq War's failure, and America's rush to war there in the wake of 9/11 has very much colored his worldview. He believes, fundamentally, that we can only defeat terrorism if we refuse to overreact — either by deploying troops abroad or by infringing on civil liberties at home — in ways that help Islamist terrorists sell their narrative of apocalyptic conflict with the West.

"The most powerful tool we have to fight [ISIS] is to say that we're not afraid, to not elevate them, to somehow buy into their fantasy that they're doing something important," Obama said in remarks two weeks ago.

This isn't exactly the easiest message to sell. Obama's limited, cautious air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is in fact weakening the group — but in a way that's slow and not especially flashy. Indeed, Obama's poll numbers on the ISIS war are quite bad, and have been for a while now:

Obama is, to put it differently, trying to do for terrorism what FDR did for the Great Depression: frame a panicked reaction, rather than the crisis itself, as the biggest problem — and help restore a sense of calm and control to the American public.

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