The terror threat from ISIS has dominated headlines for months. It’s now grabbing the spotlight on the campaign trail.
Republicans seized Monday on President Obama’s recent comments that his administration “underestimated” the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
GOP House and Senate candidates already had been knocking Obama for lacking a strategy to defeat ISIS, and Republicans immediately signaled they’d make the president’s latest comments during a CBS “60 Minutes” interview a bigger campaign issue.
Sen. John McCainJohn McCainIs Georgia turning blue? High anxiety for GOP Trump: 'Very disappointed' GOP senator dropped support MORE (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in separate interviews said the administration’s misjudging of ISIS compounded its earlier mistakes.
Both said Obama was wrong not to train and arm Syrian rebel groups earlier, and they also faulted him for not reaching a deal with Iraq to leave a large residual force of U.S. soldiers behind, something they said would have blocked ISIS’s rise.
Republicans also hit Obama for shirking blame, with Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who serves on the Intelligence Committee, saying Obama was no Harry Truman, who famously kept a plaque on his desk that read: “The Buck Stops Here.”
“Shifting blame and shirking responsibility is not presidential or beneficial to the American people,” Coats said.
Obama’s comments put the administration on defense, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki clarifying that the administration “absolutely” did not overlook the threat posed by ISIS and White House spokesman Josh Earnest insisting the president didn’t pass the buck.
“The president’s commander in chief and he’s the one who takes responsibility for ensuring that we have the kinds of policies in place that are required to protect our interests around the globe,” said Earnest, who emphasized that “everybody” had underestimated ISIS.
Obama’s interview with “60 Minutes” on Sunday was supposed to cap off a strong week for the president in which he launched airstrikes against the terrorist network in Syria and rallied allies at the United Nations to join the fight.
A new CNN/ORC poll pointed to some success for Obama, showing that 45 percent of Americans now approve of his handling of the ISIS crisis, up 8 percent from just a few weeks ago.
Earnest said the White House isn’t worried about the GOP attack ads.
“When it comes to these specific national security issues, the president believes that our national security trumps local politics,” he said.
The latest Republican ad on ISIS came from GOP Senate hopeful Thom Tillis, painting Obama and Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) as soft on national security and pointing out that the senator has missed half of the Armed Services Committee hearings this year.
“As ISIS grew, Obama kept waiting, and Kay Hagan kept quiet,” a narrator says in the ad. “The price for their failure is danger.”
A Hagan campaign spokeswoman pushed back, noting that the senator has chaired several subcommittee hearings focusing on ISIS and joined in a bipartisan vote this month to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels.
House Republicans, too, see the terror threat as a winning campaign issue.
This month, the National Republican Congressional Committee released an ad hitting Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) for voting to release terrorists held at Guantánamo Bay and against funding for troops fighting terrorism. Another NRCC ad says Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) “puts us at risk” when it comes to national security.
And House candidate Staci Appel (D-Iowa) has been explaining herself after saying at a Sept. 11 debate that she would not urge the State Department to take away the U.S. passports of suspected terrorists. The NRCC, which is backing former Chuck Grassley aide David Young, was all too happy to seize on Appel’s statements, with a narrator saying: “In a dangerous world, judgment matters. David Young would be tough on terrorists.”
Republicans suggest these ads are just the beginning.
“The president’s domestic agenda has long been unpopular, but now his lack of an international strategy to address terrorism is calling into question our national security. Americans are saying ‘enough,’ ” NRCC Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said in a statement to The Hill. “Over the next several weeks, we will ensure voters know the contrast that exists between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the security and safety of them and their families.”
The White House noted Monday that majorities of Republicans in the House and Senate voted with the president to support his plan to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition. It has presented that vote as a tacit endorsement of Obama’s strategy to confront ISIS.
Senior administration officials have also dismissed the president’s flagging foreign policy numbers. One official noted earlier this month that the public supports the individual tenants of the president’s approach, from the use of airstrikes to his refusal to deploy ground troops. The decline, the official argued, represented general anxiety over conditions in the Middle East rather than the public rejecting the president’s approach.
The White House is also beginning to argue that Republicans would push the United States into a wider war that would put more U.S. troops on the front lines.
Earnest repeatedly noted on Monday that Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Conservatives backing Trump keep focus on Supreme Court Vote House Republicans out MORE (R-Ohio) advocated sending in ground troops in a weekend interview with ABC News. Earnest went on to link that proposition to a strategy “that was pursued by the Bush administration.
The same CNN/ORC poll released Monday showed that fewer than four in 10 Americans favor sending ground troops into Iraq or Syria. If Republicans continue to press the issue in a way that gains electoral traction, Democrats are likely to launch advertisements highlighting comments by top GOP leaders signaling a willingness to send in troops.