KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) — This was not the overseas trip to Turkey and Asia that the White House had in mind.
Instead of focusing primarily on his “pivot to Asia,” as his top aides planned, President Barack Obama spent much of this past week grappling with a mushrooming terrorist threat to the world.
Obama is so far reacting to the global crisis by attempting to convey a delicate balance of toughness and compassion, both maintaining that he has an aggressive strategy for defeating ISIS while urging Americans to remain open to refugees who are fleeing from the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.
Visiting a refugee center in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, Obama appeared emotional as he greeted migrant children who had escaped persecution in Myanmar, Somalia and Sudan.
“This is who we want to help,” Obama said. “This is the face of people all around the world who still look to the United States as a beacon of hope.”
It was a gesture aimed at winning over skeptical Americans who are growing increasingly anxious over the Obama administration’s plans to welcome thousands of Syrian refugees into the United States over the next two years.
Just hours before the President’s stop at the refugee center, he adopted a more forceful tone talking about his administration’s commitment to combating terrorism.
In remarks to the ASEAN summit in the Malaysian capital, Obama responded to recent attacks in Mali and France with a promise that the “United States will be relentless against those that target our citizens.”
“This barbarity only stiffens our resolve to meet this challenge,” he said.
Polls show most disapprove of Obama’s ISIS approach
These comments follow days of mounting criticism — from Democrats and Republicans alike — over the administration’s handling of ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis.
Mindful of the searing debate back home, senior administration officials traveling with the President repeatedly turned away from the trip’s other topics, such as trade in the Pacific region, to present their case that Obama had indeed scored major victories against ISIS in recent weeks.
One official pointed to the administration’s estimate that ISIS has lost 20% to 25% of its territory since the U.S.-led coalition began its armed campaign.
“In the last several days we have taken strikes against notorious ISIL executioner Mohammed Emwazi, aka ‘Jihadi John,’ and Abu Nabil, the leader of ISIL in Libya,” the official said, using another acronym for ISIS.
“These operations should be a clear warning to ISIL: You have no safe haven,” the official continued.
Still, such gains appear to have been largely overshadowed by the horrors brought to Paris. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds 57% of Americans disapprove of the president’s strategy for defeating ISIS. Only 35% approve.
Despite the mindset inside the White House that the public remains steadfastly opposed to another war in the Middle East, that same ABC News/Washington Post poll said 60% of those surveyed would support an increased use of ground forces against ISIS. A shrinking 37% would disapprove of such a move.
David Gergen, a CNN political analyst who has advised both Republican and Democratic presidents, argued Obama will have a difficult time persuading Americans to show compassion when they fear that he lacks the resolve to destroy ISIS.
“The truth is that we don’t have a strategy. No one understands what he wants in an end game or how he plans to get there,” said Gergen, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Obama: ‘It’s important … to get the strategy right’
At a news conference at the G20 summit in Turkey, Obama sounded defensive at times as he accused his critics of risking yet another quagmire in the Middle East.
“It’s important for us to get the strategy right. And the strategy that we are pursuing is the right one,” he said, adding that the use of ground combat troops comes with enormous risks, as evidenced by the last Iraq war.
Gergen questioned why French and Russian warplanes were bombing targets in the self-declared ISIS capital of Raqqa only after attacks in Paris and on the Metrojet airliner.
“Inevitably, people are asking: Why the hell didn’t Obama do what Hollande and Putin are doing way back when he declared our intention to degrade and defeat ISIS?” Gergen said.
Even some of Obama’s fellow Democrats have voiced doubts. Allies in Congress and former aides from inside the Obama administration worry the president has misread Americans’ fears of a repeat of what happened in Paris on American soil.
Criticism from Democrats as well as Republicans
In a speech detailing her own plans for combating terrorism, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton advocated a more muscular approach.
“It’s time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate,” Clinton said as she called for deployments of additional U.S. special forces in Syria.
Clinton was hardly alone in the thinly veiled critique of Obama’s more cautious approach. And the fact that the President declared that ISIS has been “contained” a day before the Paris attacks also led to swipes within his own party.
“ISIL is not contained. ISIL is expanding,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said earlier this week in an interview on MSNBC.
Obama will have another opportunity to defend his strategy during a news conference Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, wrapping up his foreign trip. The President will then return to Washington, where he will host French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday.
The President’s aides maintain that public confidence in his response to the ISIS threat will rebound in time, pointing to Obama’s legacy as the leader who ordered the missions to take out top terrorist leaders from Osama bin Laden to “Jihadi John.”
“We can and will find you anywhere, and when we do, we will take you off the battlefield one way or the other,” a senior administration official said.