12.09.15

Obama’s Plans to Stop ISIS Leave Many Democrats Wanting More (New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Many of President Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress say they do not believe he is being aggressive enough in confronting the terrorist threat of the Islamic State after last week’s attacks in California, undermining Americans’ sense of safety, especially among voters who will decide the party’s fate in elections next year.

The concerns began to surface last month, when senior administration officials went to Capitol Hill to urge Democrats to reject a bill to curb a Syrian refugee program and were rebuffed. That hostility grew with their increasingly uncomfortable efforts to defend Mr. Obama’s strategies in the Middle East after the attacks in Paris and California.

And Mr. Obama’s address to the nation Sunday — which several congressional Democrats said was an idea they pushed — left them wanting more.

 

“When you interrupt the nation with an urgent and unscheduled statement from the Oval Office, or the White House, there’s I think an expectation that the address will contain a new approach or a new element,” said Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee.

 

With national security dominating the presidential race, many Democrats feel that while Mr. Obama may offer the nation — and their party — a rational rejoinder to the often bombastic Donald J. Trump, he still underwhelms. “The president is trying to lay out a plan that is thoughtful,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California. “It may not be robust enough.”

 

Democrats generally remain supportive of Mr. Obama’s pledge that the United States should not again send large numbers of ground troops to the region. But Senate Democrats, who have long suffered the image of being weak on national security, are scrambling this week to push their own set of antiterrorism measures, including sanctions and ways to keep guns out of the hands of people on a terrorist watch list.

 

The White House supports a measure to tighten a visa waiver program that passed the House with broad bipartisan support Tuesday. That measure is expected to be attached to a spending bill Congress will soon vote on.

 

With the president’s backing, Democrats have also been pressing for measures that would prevent those on a terrorist watch list from buying guns, a proposal Republicans have blocked.

 

“We will continue to force the debate,” said Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York. “The president can’t just rest his communications plan on one speech on a Sunday night.”

 

The mounting anxiety among Democrats about the president’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State became clear in the wake of the attacks in Paris, when a number of Democratic lawmakers joined Republicans in questioning allowing Syrian refugees into the United States.

 

Those comments stung the president and his aides, who were traveling abroad at the time. In Turkey, advisers to Mr. Obama denounced the criticisms of the refugee program as misplaced and misinformed.

 

Back home, senior aides met behind closed doors with congressional Democrats in an attempt to ease their concerns, which fell flat. “I talked to Denis McDonough and his staff and told them they need to be crisp and clear on the Syrian refugees and not come up here with mush-mouth stuff,” said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida.

 

But the White House had its own grievance, namely the refusal of Congress to give the Mr. Obama new and updated legal authority to conduct a war against the Islamic State. Officials repeatedly chided Congress for finding time to vote on the Syrian refugee legislation while having avoided a vote on the legal authority for over a year.

 

Publicly, though, the White House has sought to highlight the president’s differences with Republicans on the belief that their aggressive pro-war rhetoric, especially from the party’s presidential candidates, will serve as a helpful contrast for Democrats when voting begins.

 

“The president’s political opponents are not going to be satisfied, and that’s O.K.,” Josh Earnest, the president’s press secretary, told reporters this week, adding, “If we spent a lot of time worried or focused on that, we’d be focused on the wrong thing.”

 

To some degree, Democrats say, the frustration with Mr. Obama is a continuation of the fruitless search for the prize fighter trapped in the body of the law professor, a persona that has dogged him for the better part of his presidency. It is a transformation that Mr. Obama’s supporters say is unrealistic.

 

“He was elected because he is cool,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, “and now for people to want him to be emotional is to not understand who he is.”

 

Ms. McCaskill ticked through a variety of accomplishments, such as the successful bombing of oil tankers in the Middle East, intelligence gathering and the Islamic State’s loss of territory under American military pressure.

 

“I certainly say that he should try and reassure the American people of the successes we have had,” she said.

 

Senate Democrats are working to turn the conversation away from the Syrian refugees by pushing the issue of guns and the visa waiver program to the fore, though the measures on guns so far have proved fruitless.

 

But Democrats in both chambers said they needed the president to send a message to voters that he is in firm command of the fight against terrorism. That will require Mr. Obama to do more — and to explain his actions more clearly, they said.

 

Mr. Schiff said the president was right to resist calls from some Republicans for a full-scale ground assault in Iraq and Syria, a prospect that Mr. Schiff said would ignore the lessons of the country’s long war in Iraq. But he urged Mr. Obama to reconsider his staunch opposition to using American air power to create a “buffer zone” inside Syria.

 

“I’m concerned with the pace of our progress,” he said. “That’s a policy concern, but it’s also a concern, I think, certainly in the political arena, from the presidential race on down.”

 

A version of this article appears in print on December 9, 2015, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Obama’s Plans to Stop ISIS Leave Many Democrats Wanting More


Source: New York Times