So far, however, it’s been difficult to discern what he is prepared to do about it outside of staying the airstrike course in Iraq that he began two weeks ago.
Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday said the beheading of American journalist James Foley would not change the administration's approach to ISIS, though it shines a spotlight on the horrors the terrorist group is responsible for in Iraq and Syria.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey on Thursday backed the president’s strong condemnation of ISIS and said the administration has a long-term commitment to defeat the terrorist group.
But they were short on specifics about how Obama’s tough talk would translate into action more than the U.S. containment operations already under way in Iraq.
Hagel focused on amplifying the imminent and long-term threat ISIS poses to Americans.
“They’re beyond just a terrorist group,” he said. “They are tremendously well-funded. … This is beyond anything that we’ve seen. We must prepare and the only way you do that is to take a cold, steely, hard look at it and get ready.”
Meanwhile, Dempsey seemed to suggest that administration officials hope to achieve what has so far eluded them: a coalition of regional country partners in the Middle East willing to take military actions that the U.S. is not in places like Syria.
The extreme militant group, which they stressed is far more sophisticated and well-funded than al Qaeda ever was, can be contained but not in perpetuity, Dempsey said.
They will have to be confronted on “both sides of what is now a non-existent border [between Iraq and Syria] and that will come when we have an international coalition that is dedicated to defeating [ISIS] over time,” he said.
Attacking ISIS in any real way, he said, will require a “variety of instruments” including airstrikes.
“I’m not predicting those will occur in Syria,” he said. “At least not [led] by the United States.”
Other administration officials said corralling international support for stopping ISIS would be a major focus of an upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in September.
“We need everyone who will join us in this fight against [ISIS],” said State Department Marie Harf.
Beyond airstrikes in Iraq, Harf suggested right now that the administration’s immediate focus is on punishing those responsible for Foley's beheading and trying to prevent any other Americans from being harmed by the group.
The ISIS-circulated execution video showed another journalist, Steven Sotloff, and said his life depended on Obama’s next move.
The Obama administration is very focused on “holding people accountable when they hurt our people. … That’s certainly what will be a guiding principle of our action going forward,” Harf said.
That Obama is staying true to his belief in building international coalitions to confront the world’s problems is hardly surprising.
He was swept into office on a promise to get America out of Iraq and his liberal base is dead-set against getting the U.S. military more committed overseas.
With control of the Senate hanging in the balance with the midterm election a little more than two months away, some Republicans argue that Obama is simply stalling for time for a stronger military response.
John Feehery, a GOP strategist, said the election is turning out to be a referendum on the president’s performance and his “wishy-washiness” on foreign policy.
“Midterm elections tend to be votes of confidence on a president,” he said.
“My sense is that ISIS and Ferguson and all of these things combine to paint a picture of a weak leader — someone who is not engaged in the process and is out playing golf instead,” he said. “A tendency not to engage in anything puts voters in a bad mood and voters who are in a bad mood are going to vote against the president’s party.”
David Winston, a Republican strategist for House leaders, says the midterms will still turn on the state of the economy. Where the ISIS issue hurts Obama the most, he said, is in the difficulty of cutting through Iraq and terrorism headlines to sell a positive spin on modest gains on the economy as a major harbinger of much better days to come.
Confronting ISIS, Winston said, is not a partisan issue, especially after the “horrific” ISIS beheading of an American.
So far, the public has largely viewed airstrikes as an effective and reasonable response and are open to evaluating new U.S. options to confront ISIS in a similarly nonpartisan way.
“If there’s a belief that the policy needs to be broadened, then someone is going to need to make the argument for that,” he said
But the American public doesn’t know what the U.S. options are right now in Iraq, Winston said, and “Obama is under pressure to define this.”
“That’s the challenge front and center to him,” he added.