Analysis: President Obama Seeks to Remove Fear – Though Not Politics – From ISIS Fight

PHOTO: President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Sunday night, Dec. 6, 2016.PlaySaul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP
WATCH President Obama Delivers Historic Address on ISIS

President Obama Sunday night made what might be his last best effort to strip fear from a struggle against a terrorist threat that may well consume the rest of his time in office.

Yet in this most political of seasons, Obama chose to engage in the debates that have consumed the presidential race. He used a prime-time address to renew a call for Congress to pass new gun-control laws, and rebutted suggestions by Republican presidential candidates that Muslims be subjected to special screening and treatment.

"When we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that kind of betrayal of our values, plays into the hands of groups like ISIL," Obama said.

The president's message, delivered in a rare Oval Office speech, was designed to reassure the nation more than reassess the nation's strategy against ISIS. He declared the attack Wednesday in San Bernardino, California, to be "an act of terrorism," and warned of a "new phase" of terrorist threats.

Last week’s attack, coming on the heels of a more horrific rampage in Paris, has shaken an already jittery American public. It is also threatening to undermine a president who, until now, has been able to argue that his tactics and policies -– while open for debate –- have at least kept the nation for the most part safe.

The president outlined virtually no new policies. He knew going in that his calls for gun control would not and will not change any political equations –- only in part because few believe new gun laws would have stopped the San Bernardino killers, or many other would-be terrorists.

He called on Congress to authorize military action to confront ISIS, even though he's already using military force to take on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Congress is already engaged in the discussions he called for over screening for those who enter the U.S. without visas.

The president stuck with a vague call to make it harder for terrorists "to use technology to escape justice," rather than jump into an emerging debate over encryption technologies.

It was a calm and deliberate president on display, at a tense time for the nation, and a perilous time for this president. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken after Paris and before San Bernardino found 57 percent disapproval of the president's handling of the ISIS threat, compared to just 35 percent approval.

The political squeeze is only likely to get worse for the president, and not just from the Republicans seeking his job. (Donald Trump, of course, live-Tweeted during the president’s speech, though was muted by the standards he has set for himself.)

Hours before Obama spoke, Hillary Clinton said on ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" that she expected the president to outline an "intensification of the existing strategy." She also went a bit further, specifically mentioning the need for technology companies to cooperate with efforts to fight ISIS.

"I think there's some additional steps we have to take," Clinton said.

Obama, of course, would agree with that sentiment. But he displayed little of the urgency that is animating the campaign to replace him, in a speech where he sought to rise above the politics of the moment -– though not entirely.

"Even in this political season, even as we properly debate what steps I and future presidents must take to keep our country safe, let's make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional," Obama said.