RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Obama will address the nation this evening from the Oval Office. This is only the third time the president has made an Oval Office address. The subject will be what officials are investigating as an act of terrorism, the shooting that left 14 people dead in San Bernardino, Calif. last week. In his Saturday radio address, the president previewed some of what he will say tonight.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are Americans who will uphold our values in our free and open society. We are strong, and we are resilient. And we will not be terrorized.
MARTIN: Here to discuss the speech is NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: What do we expect the president to say tonight? And why this dramatic step, with the Oval address?
LIASSON: Well, he's giving this speech because Americans are fearful and on edge about all these shootings but particularly this killing in San Bernardino. This attack is exactly what officials have been worrying about, self-radicalized American homegrown terrorists committing an attack potentially inspired, if not directed, by ISIL. And according to the White House press secretary, tonight President Obama will tell the nation what his administration is doing to keep people safe. He'll give them an update on the investigation. And he'll talk about this new kind of terrorist threat and how he plans to defeat it in a way that's true to our values.
MARTIN: Is he expected to talk about gun control at all? He's been talking about it a lot in the last few days since the San Bernardino shootings.
LIASSON: Well, I am told that although the speech will be mostly about ISIS, the issue of gun control will probably come up because the San Bernardino shooting appears to have combined two things, and ISIS-inspired terrorism attack but also the kind of mass shooting that is happening with increasing frequency in the U.S., where the shooters use legally-purchased, military-style weapons on a soft target. The president did talk a lot about guns right after the attack. And he was criticized for treating the attacks as if they were a typical mass shooting. The White House was criticized for refusing to call the attack terrorism just 30 minutes before the FBI said it was. So this speech is a firm pivot to focusing on the new homegrown terror threat.
MARTIN: The president has been criticized a lot - in general - on his leadership on terrorism, specifically for underestimating the threat from ISIS, at least in his rhetoric. How much of this Oval address is just about optics?
LIASSON: Well, it is a potential political problem for him. His poll numbers on foreign policy and his handling of ISIS and terrorism have dropped dramatically. And on the Republican presidential primary campaign trail, Republicans are blasting him for not having an effective strategy to counter extremism in the U.S. or abroad. And you know, there are so many strands to the political debate here. There's a debate about surveillance and civil liberties, which is reopened by these attacks, whether it's about monitoring electronic communications or monitoring activities at mosques around the country. Then there's this big question about how to counter ISIS' violent ideology. The State Department's efforts to counter ISIS on social media have been widely declared ineffective. But if countering ISIS ideologically is something that has to come from inside the Muslim community - some kind of movement that says ISIS does not equal Islam - the question is, how can the U.S. help that effort without generating a backlash? So these are all the kinds of things that the president may touch on tonight.
MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Rachel.
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