Speaking from the Oval Office on Sunday night, President Obama attempted to soothe American fears about domestic terrorism in the wake of last week’s massacre in San Bernardino, California, and to convince the nation that that the United States would prevail in its fight against ISIS. The 13-minute speech didn’t break much new policy ground, though the president did get specific about what he believes the country should do (gun control, a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force) and shouldn’t do (launch another costly ground war, generally demonize Muslims).
It’s unclear whether Obama’s calm-headed awareness of the United States’ limits is what Americans want to hear at this moment, but Republicans are banking on the idea that it is not. The GOP candidates wasted no time panning Obama’s remarks, taking issue with both his tone and policy prescriptions. In the process, they left it unclear exactly what they would do if they were in his position—though they made it painfully clear what they wouldn’t do: act anything like the man currently in the White House.
Donald Trump took to his favorite medium to do what Trump does best.
Is that all there is? We need a new President - FAST!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
As for what the GOP front-runner would do if—heavens help us all—he were president, his other tweets couldn’t be mistaken for a comprehensive plan:
Wish Obama would say ISIS, like almost everyone else, rather than ISIL.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
As my colleague Fred Kaplan noted, the former is silly grumbling, the latter impractical nonsense. (So eager was Trump to refute all of Obama’s speech, he also took issue with the president’s reminder that there are Muslim-American “sports heroes”—in the process forgetting all about Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to name but two American greats.)
Trump’s review of the president’s prime-time performance was hardly an outlier. Jeb Bush, a man who ostensibly is trying to position himself as the GOP’s anti-Trump, sounded a good deal like the Donald. "This is the war of our time. It should not be business as usual,” Bush said in a statement. “We need a war-time Commander-in-Chief who is ready to lead this country and the free world to victory."
Before Obama even started speaking, Ted Cruz released a statement calling on the president to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” After the prime-time speech, the Texan firebrand was slightly more specific on what he wants done but not on how he would make it happen. "If I am elected President, I will direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS,” he said. (Well that sounds easy enough!) “And I will shut down the broken immigration system that is letting jihadists into our country. Nothing President Obama said tonight will assist in either case."
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio, now seen as the establishment candidate best positioned to win over the party's conservative base, went as far as to suggest Obama had somehow managed to do more harm than good on Sunday night. "I think not only did the president not make things better tonight; I fear he may have made things worse in the minds of many Americans," Rubio said during a Fox News interview. The Florida senator also managed to take issue with Obama’s decision to devote a portion of his speech to warning against anti-Muslim discrimination. “Where is there widespread evidence that we have a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims?” Rubio asked, apparently unaware of the existence of Trump or Cruz, two of the men currently leading him in the national GOP polls, or the growing number of death threats, assaults, and vandalism being reported by Muslims and leaders of mosques across the United States.