Against the Grain

Democrats’ Biggest Vulnerability In 2016: National Security

Hillary Clinton may suffer from the American public’s unease with President Obama’s performance against terror.

President Obama embraces Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as he leaves services honoring the life of Rev. Clementa Pinckney on June 26 at the College of Charleston TD Arena in Charleston, South Carolina.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Dec. 7, 2015, 8 p.m.

The dis­con­nect between Pres­id­ent Obama and the Amer­ic­an pub­lic on the ur­gency of the IS­IS threat is a prob­lem for his party in 2016, es­pe­cially for Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Demo­crats are at risk of polit­ic­ally mar­gin­al­iz­ing them­selves on na­tion­al se­cur­ity in the run-up to the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, ca­ter­ing to a base that seems dis­con­nec­ted from the grow­ing anxi­ety that the pub­lic feels over the threat from Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ism. Dur­ing a month when a hor­rif­ic ter­ror­ist at­tack killed 130 in Par­is and a homegrown, IS­IS-in­spired at­tack killed 14 in San Bern­ardino, Cali­for­nia, the Demo­crat­ic Party’s ma­jor fo­cus has been on cli­mate change and gun con­trol.

The signs of a pres­id­ent in deni­al over the threat of ter­ror­ism keep pil­ing up. Obama be­latedly ad­dressed the pub­lic’s fears in his Oval Of­fice ad­dress on Sunday even­ing, but he offered no new policies to deal with crisis. That it took four days for the pres­id­ent to un­equi­voc­ally call the San Bern­ardino at­tacks “ter­ror­ism” un­der­scored how his own in­stincts are at odds with the Amer­ic­an pub­lic’s. The de­cision to give a na­tion­ally tele­vised speech without out­lining a change of course sug­ges­ted that ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials were wor­ried about de­clin­ing poll num­bers and that he was try­ing to lim­it the polit­ic­al dam­age. And for an ad­min­is­tra­tion that likes to nar­rowly tail­or Obama’s mes­sage to his most en­thu­si­ast­ic sup­port­ers, schedul­ing a prime-time speech for many mil­lions to see (it was his first Oval Of­fice ad­dress since 2010) was a con­ces­sion that he’s not per­suad­ing the lar­ger pub­lic.

Put simply, the pres­id­ent’s cred­ib­il­ity was on the line. Last month in Tur­key, Obama testily brushed back re­peated ques­tion­ing from re­port­ers that he un­der­es­tim­ated the threat that IS­IS posed. Only a day be­fore the IS­IS at­tacks in Par­is, Obama con­fid­ently pro­claimed that the ter­ror­ist group was “con­tained.” In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the San Bern­ardino shoot­ing, Obama told CBS News that “our home­land has nev­er been more pro­tec­ted by more ef­fect­ive in­tel­li­gence and law-en­force­ment pro­fes­sion­als at every level than they are now.”   

When the pres­id­ent’s as­sur­ances are be­ing con­tra­dicted by events around him, even his own party’s rank-and-file be­come rest­ive. Demo­crat­ic voters, mostly sup­port­ive of the pres­id­ent, are ex­press­ing real con­cerns about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of ter­ror­ism. A 43-per­cent plur­al­ity of Demo­crat­ic voters be­lieve the U.S. and its al­lies are “los­ing” the war against IS­IS, ac­cord­ing to a Quin­nipi­ac poll con­duc­ted just be­fore the San Bern­ardino at­tack. A whop­ping 75 per­cent of Demo­crats said it’s likely there will be an­oth­er ma­jor ter­ror­ist at­tack on Amer­ic­an soil, and 23 per­cent dis­ap­prove of Pres­id­ent Obama’s hand­ling of ter­ror­ism.

This is un­usu­al. In the wake of trau­mat­ic events, even un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ents tend to find suc­cess by call­ing for na­tion­al unity. After the Ok­lahoma City bomb­ings in April 1995, Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s job ap­prov­al rat­ings rose above 50 per­cent for the first time in nearly a year, ac­cord­ing to Gal­lup’s track­ing poll. George W. Bush’s ap­prov­al reached 90 per­cent right after the Sept. 11 at­tacks. These mo­ments were both short-lived, but proved that the pub­lic ral­lies be­hind a pres­id­ent after fright­en­ing tra­gedies.  

But in­stead of act­ing as a com­mand­er in chief, Obama has be­come a po­lar­izer in chief. Im­me­di­ately after the Par­is and San Bern­ardino at­tacks, both of which provided him an op­por­tun­ity to re­set his an­ti­ter­ror­ism policies, he in­stead chose to find “wedge” is­sues that he could use to at­tack Re­pub­lic­ans. After he was houn­ded by the press over down­play­ing the IS­IS threat, he nimbly switched the sub­ject to the GOP’s heart­less­ness on the ques­tion of tak­ing in Syr­i­an refugees, a coun­ter­punch that drew sub­stan­tial press cov­er­age. In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the San Bern­ardino at­tacks, he down­played the ter­ror­ist con­nec­tions and amp­li­fied his call for ad­di­tion­al gun con­trol. Fol­low­ing the pres­id­ent’s lead, Sen­ate Demo­crats then tried to put Re­pub­lic­ans on the de­fens­ive over their fi­del­ity to gun rights by vot­ing to ban people on the no-fly list from pur­chas­ing guns. Agree or dis­agree with those policies, but both were a de­lib­er­ate dis­trac­tion from the ur­gent is­sue at hand—how to com­bat IS­IS, at home and abroad.   

These tac­tics are con­sist­ent with the White House’s view on how Demo­crats should cam­paign to win elec­tions: mo­bil­ize Obama’s lib­er­al co­ali­tion, and high­light the GOP’s most ex­treme voices to win over per­suad­able voters. Giv­en Don­ald Trump’s in­creas­ingly in­flam­mat­ory pro­nounce­ments, it’s easy to un­der­stand the savvy—and cyn­ic­al—strategy be­hind the Demo­crats’ ap­proach. (Trump’s latest scheme, which calls for the United States to bar Muslims from en­ter­ing the coun­try, is an ex­ample of how po­lar­iz­a­tion can fuel even-more-ex­treme po­lar­iz­a­tion.)

But in this in­stance, the prob­lem is that a ma­jor­ity of voters view Obama’s in­transigence on IS­IS as an ex­treme po­s­i­tion. If the pub­lic doesn’t trust the pres­id­ent to keep the coun­try safe, no amount of polit­ic­al jujitsu can hide that fun­da­ment­al vul­ner­ab­il­ity. Core Demo­crat­ic is­sues such as im­mig­ra­tion, gun con­trol, and cli­mate change will be sec­ond­ary to na­tion­al se­cur­ity if voters re­main in­sec­ure head­ing in­to 2016.

All this has put Hil­lary Clin­ton in a polit­ic­al pickle. She needs to en­er­gize the pres­id­ent’s dovish base, which gives her little lee­way to give voice to the pub­lic’s new­found hawk­ish­ness. Ideally, she’d be able to stand lock­step with the pres­id­ent’s policies, tout­ing his lead­er­ship in a time of crisis. In­stead, she is try­ing to care­fully bal­ance her sup­port for the pres­id­ent while subtly ex­press­ing areas of dis­agree­ment.  

On ABC’s This Week, she said she be­lieved there were “ad­di­tion­al” un­named steps to take against the ter­ror­ist group bey­ond what the ad­min­is­tra­tion is do­ing. At Sunday’s Saban For­um, she said the need for “ac­tion is ur­gent” against IS­IS, spe­cific­ally call­ing on Sil­ic­on Val­ley firms to do their part to dis­rupt the ter­ror­ist group’s on­line com­mu­nic­a­tions. At the same time, she ruled out de­ploy­ing Amer­ic­an troops to fight the ter­ror­ist group and, like Obama, ar­gued that la­beling the threat as “rad­ic­al Is­lam” would only in­flame the prob­lem.

The big ques­tion now is how long Clin­ton will be con­tent to ride Obama’s coat­tails. Most Demo­crats are fully com­mit­ted to the pres­id­ent’s base-first strategy and don’t see any be­ne­fit in Clin­ton dis­tan­cing her­self from a pres­id­ent whom she loy­ally served for four years. But on an is­sue that could define the elec­tion, she risks be­ing defined by the base—at a time when even some of the pres­id­ent’s former sup­port­ers are be­gin­ning to ques­tion his ap­proach.  

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