President Obama is running out of patience with Republican presidential contenders knocking his plans for fighting ISIS and other terror groups.
In a wide-ranging interview with NPR, Obama took on some of the schemes and heated rhetoric that has defined the GOP primary contest in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and the deadly assault in San Bernardino, California.
Obama, or White House officials, have weighed in on the 2016 race before – press secretary Josh Earnest last month said he was “speechless” when retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson claimed to have better on-the-ground intel in Syria than the administration – but the president’s comments, recorded Friday and aired Monday, show a new willingness to take on the contenders after his name was invoked dozens of times in last week’s debate focused on national security.
"Well, when you listen to them, though, and you ask, 'Well, what exactly are you talking about?' 'Well, we are going to bomb more,'” he said. "Well, who is it you are going to bomb? Where is it that you are going to bomb? When you talk about something like carpet-bombing, what do you mean?" Obama asked, questioning a plan espoused on the campaign trail by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is surging the polls.
"If the suggestion is that we kill tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians and Iraqis, that is not who we are," Obama said. "That would be a strategy that would have enormous backlash against the United States. It would be terrible for our national security."
During the CNN-sponsored debate in Las Vegas, moderator Wolf Blitzer tried to pin Cruz down on his "carpet bombing" proposal, asking if he would bomb the ISIS capital of Raqqa, where thousands of civilians live.
“You would carpet bomb where ISIS is -- not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed -- and you have embedded Special Forces to direct the air power. But the object isn't to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists,” he replied, a deviation from a previous statement to bomb the group so much people would learn “if sand can glow in the dark.”
Obama said it’s “important in this seat to make sure that you are making your best judgments based on data, intelligence, the information that's coming from your commanders and folks on the ground, and you're not being swayed by politics.” He singled out Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for praise.
"To his credit, I think Lindsey Graham is one of the few who has been at least honest about suggesting 'here is something I would do that the president is not doing.' He doesn't just talk about being louder or sounding tougher in the process,” he said of Graham, who dropped out of the race Monday morning.
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton wasn’t spared from Obama’s whiplash, either. Obama dismissed the idea of a “no-fly zone” or “safe zone,” something Clinton has called for in recent months, noting that setting up such a perimeter can’t be done “without large number of troops on the ground” and would be geared more toward containing the strife in Syria, not eliminating ISIS.
Lest he look out of touch the way he did in an Oval Office address following the incident in California, Obama admitted there is “legitimate criticism” that he hasn’t done enough to assuage an anxious public. "If you have been watching television for the last month, all you have been seeing, all you have been hearing about is these guys with masks or black flags who are potentially coming to get you," he said.
Obama also conceded he hasn’t explained U.S. efforts against ISIS well enough. “So if people haven't seen that in fact 9,000 strikes have been carried out against ISIL, if they don't know that towns like Sinjar that were controlled by ISIL have been taken back, or that a town like Tikrit, that was controlled by ISIL, now has been repopulated by previous residents, then they might feel as if there is not enough of a response," he said.
But that’s as far as he would go toward grading himself.
“I make no apologies for us wanting to [go after terrorist targets] appropriately and in a way that is consistent with American values,” Obama said.