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Are Americans Convinced Obama's Strategy Against ISIS Is Working?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Obama, like presidents before him say, his greatest responsibility is to protect American citizens. That is how he frames the struggle against ISIS. But a majority of Americans - 60 percent - disapprove of Obama's handling of terrorism. Joining me now to talk about how the president's anti-terror policies are being perceived is Bruce Jentleson. He was a senior adviser in the State Department during Obama's first term. He is a professor at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy. Professor, good morning to you.

BRUCE JENTLESON: Good to be with you.

GREENE: So just to establish the context here - I mean, San Bernardino really seemed to change a lot - polls suggesting Americans thinking much, much more about terrorism and are afraid right now.

JENTLESON: Yeah, very much so. I mean, for much of our history actually, the threats we faced and the wars we fought were over there somewhere - World War I in Europe, World War II in Europe and Asia, Cold War pretty much around the world but not at home. You know, 9/11 really brought it home. It was in here. It had the profound effect, and then San Bernardino added to it because of the sort of randomness, whether it's a sleeper cell or a lone wolf. And it comes on top of a real sense of anxiety for Americans from the economy, for some immigration, culture in a whole variety of things. So it's really that mix, I think, that's made San Bernardino have so much impact.

GREENE: How's the president doing in your mind?

JENTLESON: You know, I think there are two elements. I think one is the personal - does the president connect with the American people? And I think the speech he gave in the Oval Office didn't really hit the mark. You know, there's a sense that there's a lot of anxiety out there. And, you know, in the same way that Bill Clinton had his, I feel your pain, what people are looking for now is, I feel your anxiety. And you have to meet them where they are and then help guide them to where they need to be. And I don't think he quite got that right yet...

GREENE: So how does he get it right? What advice would you be giving him to get that right because it sounds - I mean, you can say, you know, feel pain, but exactly how do you pull that off and send that message?

JENTLESON: I think there's two elements. The other side is the policy side. And what we're seeing this week is a very multifaceted, steady effort to show that ISIS is a high priority. He was at the Pentagon. He's at the National Terrorism Center. Secretary Kerry's in Moscow trying to work with the Russians. And I think rather than just sort of a one-off, they're demonstrating that they're doing that.

GREENE: Oh, so you're saying it's not just about policy. It's not just about words - I feel your pain. The imagery - I mean, perception can be very important, too.

JENTLESON: It is. It's both the policy that the president is paying attention - he's got it, so I don't have to pay so much attention. And at the personal level, you know, it probably would make sense to make a visit to San Bernardino. It's a little late, but it still could be done. He went to Sandy Hook after the slaughters there. He went to Charleston. Both were very successful. And to go out there - and also I think actually have some meeting with the Muslim-American community, whether it's the leaders or a particular community. It helps reinforce his message that, I understand your anxiety, but we should not turn to Islamophobia.

GREENE: About 30 seconds left, it looks like. I just wonder any historic moment strike you that we can sort of learn from when we saw - look back and see how a president responded to something?

JENTLESON: I think deep breath. I mean, even FDR for his great efforts of, you know, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself, did do the internment of Japanese-Americans. And I think we really need to balance both what our values are and also avoid the ready-fire-aim tendency in the foreign policy side.

GREENE: OK, Professor Jentleson, thanks very much.

JENTLESON: Thank you.

GREENE: He's a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.