The magnitude and malevolence of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, combined with President Obama’s pathetic reaction, are guaranteed to deeply affect America’s presidential contest. The question is which candidate is best prepared to take on the president’s fecklessness.
Mr. Obama’s news conference Monday in Turkey was stunning. He called the Paris attacks—which French President François Hollandehas declared an “act of war”—a mere “setback” in the campaign against Islamic State, also known as ISIS. He urged reporters not to “lose sight that there has been progress being made.”
In an interview that aired the morning of the massacre, the president declared that ISIS had been “contained.” When pressed Monday on whether he had underestimated its strength, or whether the U.S. needs to change its strategy, Mr. Obama grew petulant. “If folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan,” he said.
The president even said he is not interested in “pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning”—“slogans,” he called them.
The president claimed to “have been mounting a very aggressive strategy” against ISIS. But this week the French bombed ISIS facilities in Syria after the U.S. supplied their coordinates—so why hadn’t Mr. Obama’s campaign lit up these targets earlier?
Concerns about terrorism seem likely to grow over the next year as voters become further disenchanted with Mr. Obama’s leadership. Ina May Gallup survey, 42% of Americans said that terrorism would be “extremely important” to their presidential vote. In a Nov. 10 CBS News/New York Times poll, less than a third (31%) of respondents approved of the president’s handling of ISIS.
The Republican field could divide between those who offer the hottest rhetoric and those who seek to provide a sense of strong, effective leadership by presenting a comprehensive strategy to defeat global Islamic terrorism.
GOP hopefuls who have struggled on foreign affairs— Donald Trumpand Ben Carson, for instance—may struggle more. Lack of experience looks less attractive when national security is at stake. Candidates fluent in foreign policy could gain ground. Retired military leaders and respected policy experts who vouch for the foreign-policy proposals of particular candidates could provide validation that voters are seeking as they sort out the field.
Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz will rue having attacked intelligence surveillance programs. This was already a losing proposition. In a Jan. 11 Pew Research Center poll, only 30% of Republicans said that government anti-terrorism policies have gone “too far in restricting civil liberties”; 57% worried they “haven’t gone far enough to protect the country.” That gap will widen.
The Paris attacks could also influence the Democratic contest. In a debate the day after the massacre, all three of the party’s candidates stood solidly for the status quo, giving the impression that Mr. Obama had done everything possible to fight ISIS and protect the country from terrorism.
But we should not be surprised if Hillary Clinton publicly breaks with Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, probably no later than the Democratic convention in July. Some free advice for Mrs. Clinton: Use words that the president will not say, like “win” and “victory.” And draw a contrast with Mr. Obama by showing that you dislike Islamic State more than you do Republicans.
The less this election hinges on income inequality and the more it focuses on ISIS, the likelier voters are to turn toward the GOP. A Sept. 13 Gallup poll found that 52% of Americans felt Republicans would do a better job of protecting the country, and only 36% thought Democrats would. After Mr. Obama’s limp response to the Paris attacks, those numbers will slide further for Democrats.
To translate this into a winning message, however, the Republican nominee must match a tough critique of Mr. Obama’s ineffectual foreign policy with a sensible and credible strategy to defeat radical Islamic terrorism.
Americans value Mrs. Clinton’s experience as secretary of state and have yet to fully blame her for this administration’s failed foreign policy. It will take a persuasive Republican nominee to convince swing voters that she was in the room when Mr. Obama set his course—and that his mistakes were therefore hers, too.
A version of this article appeared November 19, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Government Shutdown As Self-Promotion and online at WSJ.com.