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Back From Vacation, Obama Faces A Host Of Challenges


President Obama's vacation is over. The criticism it sparked is not. While Obama was on Martha's Vineyard, critics - even some allies - said they were hoping for a more robust presidential response to the killings of two young Americans - the beheading of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamist Militants in Syria and the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Joining us now, as she does most Mondays, is Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.


GREENE: Well, let's start with the execution of James Foley and those horrific images. I mean, one thing we have been hearing from the Obama administration is that this group who killed him, the Islamic State, is really posing a threat to the United States, to this country.

ROBERTS: Yeah, they're saying really scary things. And the only meeting on the president's calendar today is with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who's been saying that this group proposes, quote, "a new paradigm of threats to this country." But he's been saying things like that, the Secretary of State says Islamic State and its wickedness that it represents must be destroyed, which calls for some kind of action. And you're hearing it from everybody up to the attorney general, saying very scary things.

Thousands of them have U.S. or other Western passports so they can get into this country. And you heard yesterday the head of the House Intelligence Committee saying that they are one plane ticket away from U.S. shores. So what you have is a lot of people saying that the president has to do more. His decision to authorize airstrikes in Iraq so far is popular with Americans. An ABC poll last week showed majority support. But his national security experts are basically saying it's not enough, that pretty much all of them are saying, you have to go into Syria if you really want to deal with the Islamic State.

GREENE: OK, not enough, do more. What exactly are the options here for President Obama?

ROBERTS: Well, as you well know, he's been very reluctant to get involved in the Syrian civil war. And now it's even more complicated because Assad is basically on the same side as us in wanting to get rid of the Islamic State.

GREENE: Which has been a real interesting change in the dynamic...

ROBERTS: Exactly.

GREENE: ...Here that we're seeing.

ROBERTS: But the sense is that you had to get to these terrorists who are threatening America where their stronghold is, and that is Syria. So there's lots of second-guessing about why the president has waited so long, whether he could've thwarted this group's power if we had supported anti-Assad factions a while ago as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested.

But regardless of what has happened, the president has to decide what to do next, and that is not at all clear. His detractors, including many Republicans, are saying he has already spent way too much time considering the options rather than acting. And by the way, David, that's a criticism you're also hearing about how he responds to crises here at home, like the one we saw in Missouri over the past couple of weeks.

GREENE: Well, and that criticism coming from some of his allies. I mean, the killing of Michael Brown, you've really seen a lot of the president's staunchest supporters abandoning him over this. Why is that happening?

ROBERTS: Well, it's mainly in the African-American community, in the sense that the president's reaction was, quote, "soulless" as some have said. Now, he did send the attorney general there. Three White House officials are expected to be at Michael Brown's funeral today. But there are African-American leaders saying that the president hasn't done enough to address this issue.

Now, it's complicated. There's also been fundraising, online fundraising for the police officer who was involved in this. So the president is probably trying to weigh his options here. And in a CBS poll last week, more approved of what he's done so far than disapproved. But you are hearing those voices in the African-American community, and of course this is the group that has stood by him through everything. Now, they're not likely to go off him but - except with the commentators. And they are definitely of the view that the president could've done more.

GREENE: No, he has said, though, that this is a really difficult situation. I mean, he doesn't want to prejudge an investigation. So are there options given that, you know, for things that he could actually do to sort of satisfy some of these critics?

ROBERTS: Well, one thing is just to show up as he did in Newtown, Connecticut, which they point out. And he is saying that he's going to review a federal program that has supplied close to a half billion dollars last year in military equipment to city police. But, look, the main thing the president needs to do going into the midterm elections is to connect with everyday Americans; that's what he does best, and that's when he gets higher approval ratings. Democrats are hoping that he does that in the next 10 weeks.

GREENE: All right, Cokie, always good to talk to you.

ROBERTS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Have a good week. That's Cokie Roberts. She joins us on the program most Mondays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.