Obama’s ISIS response stirs Democratic angst about 2016

Democrats are increasingly fearful that President Obama’s handling of the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is becoming a liability for their party.

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Those fears have become more acute after Obama’s Sunday evening address from the Oval Office, where the president unveiled little by way of news or strategic shifts.

“Weak and unclear,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told The Hill, when asked for his reaction to Obama’s remarks. “What is the plan of action?”

Sheinkopf added that, at this point, “any rational person would worry about his legacy, and any rational Democrat would worry about the Democrats being injured in an electoral setting.”

This vulnerability is all the more frustrating to Democrats because at one point during Obama’s presidency — the period immediately following the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 — they believed that the party’s traditional disadvantage on issues of national security had been erased.

In a CNN/ORC poll shortly after the al Qaeda leader’s death, 65 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of terrorism, against 34 percent who disapproved.

Obama enjoyed a similar rating on the issue at the beginning of his second term, which followed an election campaign during which his vice president, Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden fuels 2020 speculation Biden calls for unity: 'It’s time for America to get up' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE, had boiled down the case for reelection to the fact that America had become more prosperous and safe: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”

But the president’s poll ratings on terrorism began sliding soon afterward, and they have now been completely reversed from their high point. 

In a CNN/ORC poll released last week, only 38 percent approved of his handling of terrorism, while 60 percent disapproved — the lowest mark of his presidency. Asked specifically about Obama’s approach to ISIS, 33 percent approved and 64 percent disapproved.

“If the president’s ratings are low, that’s always a problem for his party in elections,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “There is no getting around that.”

Republican opponents of the president have been piling on, insisting they would adopt a more robust course against ISIS and Islamic radicalism more generally — even if those claims have themselves led to controversy. On Monday, GOP presidential front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: Americans disagree with Comey firing Thousands protested Trump visit in Belgium Overnight Cybersecurity: Bad Russian intel may have swayed Comey's handling of Clinton probe | Apple sees spike in data requests | More subpoenas for Flynn | DOJ's plan for data warrants MORE called for a suspension of all Muslims entering  the United States.

Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHannity on attempted advertiser boycott: 'Nobody tells me what to say on my show' Overnight Cybersecurity: Bad Russian intel may have swayed Comey's handling of Clinton probe | Apple sees spike in data requests | More subpoenas for Flynn | DOJ's plan for data warrants Budowsky: GOP summer of scandal MORE has made a concerted effort to distance herself from Obama on ISIS. Speaking on ABC News’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday, Clinton said “we’re not winning” against ISIS, adding that “we have to fight them in the air, we have to fight them on the ground and we have to fight them on the Internet.”

Those comments further emphasized a distinction that Clinton had highlighted when she said at a recent primary debate that ISIS “cannot be contained” but instead must be “defeated.” Her choice of words in that instance was telling; Obama had been widely criticized for having said, on the day before the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, that ISIS had been geographically “contained.”

Obama and Clinton had lunch at the White House on Monday. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that they “discussed a wide array of topics, but this was mostly a social occasion,” according to pool reports.

The White House pushed back on Monday at criticism of the president’s Sunday address. During his regular briefing with reporters, Earnest said that Obama was “pleased” with how the speech had come together. 

Earnest also sought to paint the negative commentary on the speech as the predictable carping of political foes.

“Well, look,. the president’s political opponents are not going to be satisfied. And that’s OK,” Earnest said. “That’s part of the process, that’s part of an election, that’s part of people who are competing to win the support of the American people. And ... I think it’s disappointing, sometimes, when it takes place in the context of national security issues.”

But even Democratic strategists don’t buy the line that Obama is floating above the political fray. To the contrary, they claim that the address was grounded in politics, noting it was symbolically important but light on actual news.

“There are a lot of moving parts here and I think it is the president who sets the tone for his party,” said Bannon, adding that “the Democratic Party needs to respond with a single message.”

Sheinkopf was more blunt.

“He has no specific plan except to say we will stay the course and everything will be fine,” he said. “If the polls are to be believed, [voters] liked it when he took the lead to kill Osama bin Laden, and they don’t like that he’s not taking the lead now. Americans still hope John Wayne will show up.” 

Jordan Fabian contributed.