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


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.

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