In the wake of the Islamic State-claimed terrorist bombings in Brussels, which killed over 30 people and injured hundreds, a visibly vexed Obama said defeating ISIS was his "number one priority."
Obama was asked about the terrorist attacks at a press conference in Argentina, on the tail end of his diplomatic vacation to Cuba.
"You’ve resisted calls to alter your strategy for fighting the Islamic State and you said that your critics aren’t offering any better ideas. But the attacks keep happening. Did Brussels change anything for you?" a reporter asked.
"I think it is important to recognize that this is my number one priority. I’ve got a lot of things on my plate, but my top priority is to defeat ISIL," Obama said.
Obama’s answer was a departure from past statements about his priorities.
Obama has used the phrase "my top priority" 29 times in his second-term public addresses, according to the American Presidency Project database.
Of those 29 instances, 28 occurred in addresses that had nothing to do with terrorism. Twenty-five instances, or 86 percent of the total, referred to the economy and domestic policy concerns like paid family leave and jobs training programs.
Only one instance out of 29 mentioned terrorism, and even that instance contained considerable ambiguity.
Obama issued a proclamation about hardening American infrastructure in October 2014 that said "the security of our nation is my top priority." The proclamation included terrorism in a list of "physical threats to our infrastructure"—after "extreme weather," "climate change," "health pandemics," and "accidents."
The president’s de-emphasis on terrorism is not particularly surprising. For years, he has downplayed the threat that terrorism posed to the security and interests of the United States.
In August 2013, Obama pointed out that Americans are more likely to die in car crashes than from terrorism (critics responded that car crashes do not rattle world markets, and cars do not conspire to commit mass-casualty crashes). In January 2014, Obama dismissed ISIS as a "JV" team, months before the group seized swathes of territory in Syria and northern Iraq. The president said in an interview that ISIS was "contained" the day before an ISIS cell killed 130 civilians and injured over 350 in Paris, France.
As has been documented, when Obama became president he hoped to pivot the country’s focus away from foreign affairs and toward domestic concerns like health care and cap-and-trade. Even the president’s signature foreign policy initiative, the Iran nuclear deal, seemed designed to wind down the U.S. commitment to contain Iran, and by extension the U.S. commitment to the Middle East.
Obama’s remarks on Wednesday, then, represented a shift from his past words and actions.
A very charitable observer could conclude from this anomaly that a recent string of deadly terrorist attacks led the president to change his priorities. A different observer could conclude that the president’s real priorities lie elsewhere.