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Analysis: For Obama, Bigger Stage, Bolder Words, Same Policy

By Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama appears to be playing catchup to the national mood on terrorism.

His prime-time speech Sunday on the threat posed by Islamic State militants and their admirers may have been only his third address ever from the Oval Office. But he has spoken at least a dozen times about terrorism in the weeks since the Paris attacks and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. And it apparently hasn’t worked.

The unusual venue of a prime-time TV address came as aides sought a way for Obama to reassert himself on the issue of national security. Despite frequent comments in past days, he’s faced criticism from Republicans for what seemed a dispassionate response to the back-to-back attacks, doubts about his strategy from members of both major parties, and the defection of 47 Democrats in the House of Representatives who did not accept his assurance that his administration already is doing an adequate job screening refugees from Syria.

Yet much of Obama’s failure to drive the conversation his way — that his strategy against the Islamic State is working however slowly — stems from his own rhetoric, particularly his reluctance to speak in anger or alarm about terrorism. Last week, for example, his White House lagged behind his own FBI director in saying flatly that the San Bernardino attack was an Islamic jihadist-inspired “act of terrorism.”

On Sunday, Obama strived to use clearer language to assure the country.

“This was an act of terrorism,” he said of the California attacks.

“We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us,” he added, sharpening his wording from his traditional phrasing of “degrade and ultimately destroy.”

He also implored Americans not to scapegoat Muslims for the actions of a “death cult,” but called out Muslim leaders and nations to do more themselves. “It’s a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse,” he said.

Obama’s usual reticence — also on display in the aftermath of the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting and his administration’s initial focus on a video-inspired demonstration after the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya — is seen as deliberate caution by his White House and dismissed as insufficient to the task by his critics.

Before Obama spoke, a senior administration official knowledgeable about the speech but not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice said that the president “felt compelled” to deliver a speech to address fears prompted by both recent attacks.

“We recognized that there are very real and legitimate fears in the United States and around the world about the nature of this terrorist threat,” the official said.

Republicans were unmoved: “President Obama is a wartime president who doesn’t seem to realize it,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

Obama’s customary hesitancy followed by acknowledgment reflects an inherent tension in Obama’s presidency: He campaigned for the White House, and has spent much of his seven years in office promising to turn the page on war and the threat of terrorism only to be forced to react by events in a convulsing Middle East. He again ruled out a ground war Sunday.

John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who studies the presidency, said Obama’s “overly cautious” tendency comes from a naturally deliberative personality as well as a rare attitude for a politician that if he doesn’t have anything to say then he won’t say anything. Americans often want to hear from their presidents, though, in the way Bill Clinton spoke after the Oklahoma City bombing and George W. Bush after 9/11.

“After a series of tragedies, Americans are looking for someone somewhere to make them feel better,” Hudak said. “A president has the opportunity to make them feel better. … His biggest weakness is not being able to do that.”

Critics complain that Obama has a tendency to react slowly or awkwardly.

When a Muslim Army doctor killed 13 and wounded 30 others at Fort Hood, Obama didn’t comment until the following day. And his administration long called it an act of workplace violence, not Islamic-inspired terrorism.

After a would-be terrorist tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day 2009, a vacationing Obama didn’t make a public comment until four days later. When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, Obama didn’t speak publicly on it until nine days later.

Republicans complain that Obama hasn’t been forceful enough.

“If I am elected president we will utterly destroy ISIS,” Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz said Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa. “We won’t degrade them. We will utterly destroy them. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion.”

Even prominent Democrats have criticized Obama’s strategy as weak, or have raised doubts about his assurances in past weeks.

In the House of Representatives, 47 Democrats brushed aside White House assurances that it is adequately screening refugees coming from Syria to the U.S., and voted for a bill that would require the administration to certify that any refugee has been fully vetted and is not a terrorist before they could be admitted to the U.S.

And on the campaign trail, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said Sunday that Obama’s approach needs bolstering. “We’re not winning,” she said on ABC News.

Jens David Ohlin, a law professor at Cornell University who studies war, said Obama is trying to strike a balance between his own cautious nature and what the American people want to hear in time of crises.

“Obama is often aggressive in his actions but rhetoric is always measured,” he said. “He’s not going to get on a soapbox and beat his chest.”

©2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about counter-terrorism and the United States fight against Islamic State during an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, December 6, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Biden Making Pitch To Liberals

By Lesley Clark, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden will appear this week for the first time before the largest gathering of progressive activists in the country, a critical constituency for any Democrat with presidential ambitions.

Biden’s debut at the annual Netroots Nation comes as the vice president has made a number of moves that could better position himself with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, if he decides to make a third run for the presidency.

Those moves could help him compete for liberal support with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts if she runs for the Democratic nomination, and stake out the left flank of Hillary Clinton.

Among Biden’s steps:
–At a June White House summit on working families — as presumed Democratic front-runner Clinton grappled with missteps on talking about her wealth — Biden portrayed himself as a populist everyman, declaring he was once “the poorest man in Congress.”

— In Philadelphia to mark the Fourth of July, he declared gay marriage to be the “civil rights issue of our day.”

— And in South Carolina he delivered a closed-door speech that was fiery and populist, attendees told CNN.

“Clearly there’s a part of him that wants to run for president,” Robert Borosage, president of the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future, said in an interview. “I think he’s kind of testing the water, putting a toe in, and Netroots would be a good place for that.”

The Scranton, Pa., native’s blue-collar roots make him an attractive candidate for the party’s liberal base, which is increasingly focused on income inequality and what it sees as the excesses of Wall Street, Borosage said. Biden also declared his support for gay marriage before President Barack Obama.

“On domestic policy, he’s always been standup,” Borosage said. “It doesn’t seem like a contradiction for him to appeal to progressives.”

Biden does have challenges with the left. He is viewed as hawkish on foreign policy, and like Clinton he voted in 2002 to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq, a vote he has since said he regrets.

Biden is widely viewed as wanting to keep his name in play, telling interviewers earlier this year that he was unlikely to make a decision on a presidential bid until next summer, but that it was “as likely I run as I don’t run.”

Confidantes say the current 2016 speculation is premature and that Biden is simply speaking to rally troops who are part of the administration’s natural constituency.

“This is what vice presidents do,” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden aide who was appointed to finish out Biden’s Senate term when Biden left for the vice presidency. “It’s safe to say there isn’t anything he’s doing right now that isn’t part of his job description.”

Kaufman notes Biden’s remarks about his income aren’t new: He used similar language to describe himself in 2008, and the Obama campaign touted his less-than-millionaire status to cast him as someone who could relate to the middle class.

Netroots Nation executive director Raven Brooks said activists expect Biden’s focus on Thursday to be the immediate: November’s midterm elections.

Still, Brooks notes Biden’s appearance “certainly serves a dual purpose for him if he decides to run. Getting out there and being the guy most able to most openly court the liberal base certainly doesn’t do him any harm and in fact does him some favors for 2016.”

Biden won’t be the only potential 2016 candidate to mingle with the estimated 3,000 activists and bloggers at the Cobo Center in Detroit.

Warren, who says she’s staying in the Senate but remains a favorite among liberals for a presidential bid, will make her third Netroots appearance. She will deliver the conference’s keynote address on Friday, a day after Biden speaks.

Clinton, who is widely believed to be considering a run but has largely eschewed political events in lieu of her book tour, will not attend. But her campaign-in-waiting, Ready for Hillary, will be at the event, sponsoring a party and parking its bus at the convention center.

Photo: Abaca Press/MCT/Olivier Douliery

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Obama Tells Congress: Help The Poor, Or I Will

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama looked to revive his second term in a sweeping speech to the nation Tuesday, outlining an agenda that calls for creating jobs and addressing the widening gap between rich and poor.

In his annual State of the Union address, Obama called for a “Year of Action,” saying that he wants to work with Congress but will act on his own when he can, if necessary.

In one example, he said he’d sign an executive order forcing federal contractors to raise the minimum wage for their low-paid workers — and he challenged Congress to do the same for all workers.

He offered a mix of new and old ideas, and after five years of being routinely thwarted by Congress, Obama made it clear he plans to go it alone when he can’t get congressional buy-in, using the power of his office.

“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama said in the speech to a nationally televised joint session of Congress. “But America does not stand still and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Entering his sixth year in office, Obama worked to tie economic complaints to a long tide of history rather than his own record. He said that although the U.S. has largely pulled out of the economic recession, the middle class has lost jobs and income from three decades of blows, including shifts in technology and global competition.

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” he said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by — let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

Obama said he would introduce new retirement savings plans with a guaranteed return for those whose employers do not offer such plans. White House officials said about half of workers don’t have a work-based retirement plan.

He said he would host a summit to highlight policies that help working families, instruct Vice President Joe Biden to review the federal job training system and work with companies to increase apprenticeships. He said he cut bureaucratic red tape by improving the efficiency of the federal permitting process and pushing for more timely decisions on permits and reviews.

Obama said he will continue to push Congress to extend jobless benefits and raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for all Americans — a move some Democrats are eager to use to contrast with Republicans on the campaign trail in November.

The executive order would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour for employees who work for companies involved in future government contracts. White House officials said they hoped it would spark other employers to follow suit.

Obama said he also wants lawmakers to expand the earned income tax credit, remove retirement tax breaks for the wealthiest while expanding them for the middle class, give women more tools to fight discrimination and protect gay workers.

He again pushed lawmakers to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws — which he said could grow the economy $1 trillion over two decades and create thousands of jobs.

The Democratic-controlled Senate last year passed the most significant overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation. The Republican-led House of Representatives won’t consider the bill, which provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally, until the borders are secure.

But Republican leaders in the House, mindful of the changing face of the U.S. electorate, are expected to introduce their own guidelines later this week for legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants.

Obama opens his sixth year in the White House after a tumultuous year that prompted some of the worst job approval ratings since he took office. A divided Congress is already turning much of its focus to the November election, and he’s got just three years left in office to make his mark.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the highest-ranking woman in the House Republican leadership, offered her party’s response, blaming Obama’s policies — and not 30 years of economic trends — for “making people’s lives harder.”

She said Republicans have plans that focus on jobs “without more spending, government bailouts and red tape.”

And she took a swipe at Obama’s signature health care law, saying it’s not working.

“We’ve all talked to too many people who have received cancellation notices they didn’t expect or who can no longer see the doctors they always have,” she said.

Obama put in a plug for his embattled health care law, sullied by the chaotic website rollout and Obama’s broken promise that Americans could keep their insurance plans. Among the guests in first lady Michelle Obama’s section was Amanda Shelley, an Arizona physician’s assistant who two days after securing insurance through the Affordable Care Act underwent emergency abdominal surgery.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was named the “designated survivor” — the Cabinet official who was asked to skip the speech and watch from a distance in the event of an emergency.

Obama also addressed combating climate change. But he didn’t mention Keystone, the controversial pipeline that would bring Canadian crude to the Gulf Coast and is hotly opposed by environmentalists.

He said his administration would set new fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles and propose new incentives for medium and heavy-duty trucks to use alternative fuels such as natural gas. And he said the administration is developing new environmental standards for oil and gas drilling on public land.

He told lawmakers that he will pay for his new, ongoing initiatives while supporting additional deficit reduction.

Obama will take his case to the public, starting Wednesday at a Costco in Maryland, where he’ll make a pitch for raising the minimum wage, which the retail giant has endorsed in the past. He’ll also talk up his starter retirement savings accounts in Pittsburgh later Wednesday. He’ll continue the campaign-style pitch review in Milwaukee and at a Nashville, Tenn., high school on Thursday.

Photo: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT