WASHINGTON — Working to ease public jitters ahead of the holidays, President Barack Obama will use visits to the Pentagon and the National Counterterrorism Center this week to try to explain his strategy for stopping the Islamic State group abroad and its sympathizers at home.
Obama’s high-profile visits to agencies charged with keeping the U.S. safe follow an Oval Office address Dec. 6 that aimed to reassure the public but that critics said failed to do the job.
Obama is also hoping to draw a contrast with Donald Trump and his inflammatory remarks about Muslims, which Obama’s Administration has warned emboldens extremists looking to pull the U.S. into a war with Islam.
“Terrorists like ISIL are trying to divide us along lines of religion and background,” Obama said in his weekly address, using an acronym for the extremist group. “That’s how they stoke fear. That’s how they recruit.”
This week, he said, “we’ll move forward on all fronts.”
The public relations campaign, one week before Christmas, comes as the public is jittery about the specter of extremism after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California this month and the Paris attacks a few weeks before.
Seven in 10 Americans rated the risk of an attack in the U.S. as at least somewhat high, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. That was a sharp increase from the 5 in 10 who said that in January.
U.S. officials have insisted there are no specific, credible threats to the United States. But the apparent lack of warning before San Bernardino has raised concerns about whether the U.S. has a handle on potential attacks, especially during high-profile times such as the end-of-year holidays.
Obama, who leaves Dec. 18 for his annual vacation in Hawaii, had to interrupt that trip in 2009 when a would-be attacker tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day.
Obama will open the weeklong drive on Dec. 14 by traveling to the Pentagon for a rare meeting outside the White House by his National Security Council, followed by a public update from the president about the fight against the Islamic State group. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama did not intend to announce any major changes in approach.
“If there’s an opportunity for us to intensify efforts behind one aspect of our strategy, then that is something that he wants his team to be prepared to do,” Earnest said.
On Dec. 17, at the National Counterterrorism Center, which analyzes intelligence at its facility in suburban Virginia, Obama plans to address reporters after a briefing by intelligence and security agencies on threat assessments. Obama receives a similar briefing each year before the holidays.
Concerns about extremism emanating from the Middle East have taken center stage in the presidential race. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, planned a speech in Minnesota on Dec. 15 to present a plan for protecting the U.S. homeland from homegrown violence and other threats.
Obama has tried to use his bully pulpit as a counterpoint to GOP front-runner Trump and his widely condemned proposal to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. The White House scheduled a conference call Dec. 14 with religious leaders about ways to fight discrimination and promote religious tolerance.
Aiming to put a human face on the Syrian refugee issue, Obama is to speak Dec. 15 at the National Archives Museum, where 31 immigrants from Iraq, Ethiopia, Uganda and 23 other nations will be sworn in as U.S. citizens. Obama planned to use that occasion to reframe the national conversation about immigrants around the country’s founding values of tolerance and freedom.
Despite Obama’s reassurances, Republicans say the president has failed to grasp the severity of the risk.
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, said the threat from IS and other extremist groups presents “a clear and present danger to the United States.”
“We can’t contain this threat. We have to defeat it,” Hurd said in the weekly GOP address to the nation. “To defeat ISIS, we have to be in this for the long haul.”
By Josh Lederman. AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson contributed