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Previewing Obama’s Islamic State address

President Obama will address the nation with his plan to dismantle the Islamic State group. Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff sit down with chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner and political editor Domenico Montanaro to discuss what we should expect to hear from the president, as well as how Congress, foreign allies and the American public may react to the strategy.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We look ahead now to the president's address to the nation tonight on his plan to dismantle the Islamic State group.

    We're joined by our own chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, and our political editor, Domenico Montanaro.

    We welcome you both.

    So, Margaret, to you first. You have been talking today to foreign policy experts and others. What do they expect the president to say?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes, including officials to the government.

    I think it's — there's going to be no surprise. The president has signaled this. It's going to be a broad offensive that he's going to announce against the Islamic State group, diplomatic, military, economic, on every front, with the coalition that they're trying to put together now.

    And he said this before, to degrade and ultimately destroy, or certainly destroy I.S.' offensive capabilities. So that's going to be the plan. And the elements are going to include, as we know, the use — expanded use of American airpower, first of all, expanding the area inside Iraq, not just to these confined groups, to confined areas, and secondly into Syria, which is a government that is not giving permission.

    So it's a great, big step for them. And, secondly, the — it will be to try to get members of this coalition to step up to helping to expand the arming and equipping of not only the Iraqi military, but the Syrian moderate opposition.

    I don't think if he will announce it, but, essentially, they are going to add an overt element to what's been a covert CIA program to do this with based in places like Jordan and Turkey. This is going to become much more overt.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Domenico, the first reaction on Capitol Hill, especially among House Republicans, is always, no, I don't think we want to give you what you're asking for, for this president, Democrats, Republicans.

    But in this case, we're seeing something — a slight shift this afternoon.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, obviously, we have seen Republicans try to support the policy, but be critical of the president, saying that he's taken too long.

    In fact, when you looked yesterday at John Boehner's press conference, he said the word strategy 13 times in the span of three minutes, because he is trying to play off of President Obama last week saying, well, we don't have a strategy yet.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, now the president is trying to get the strategy.

    And to one of Margaret's points about what the — what President Obama is trying to do, well, one of those things is perhaps arm Syrian rebels within Syria who could then fight — who could then fight the Islamic State group there.

    And what we could tell from that behind the scenes is that Republicans shelved a continuing resolution measure, a government funding measure short-term, because the White House has been lobbying them to do so because they're anticipating that the president is going to ask for some funding for those Syrian rebels.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But they're now saying they maybe they will — they will let the president make his case, at least.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Yes, he's going to make that case, and then they're going to meet tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. and see whether or not they're going to put it in another continuing resolution or to look at it separately.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Margaret, as we watch all of — as we work up our way to another big moment tonight — a year ago was a big moment on Syria — our allies from abroad must be watching this very carefully. They must be deciding whether they're going to support it.

    Are they ahead, behind us, with us?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Gwen, the administration has lined up close to 40 countries very quickly that say they're part of this coalition.

    But I am hearing some great concern, especially from regional players, about what they will really be asked to do. Are they really ready to make these painful choices, and is this famously non-interventionist president really ready to make a commitment?

    I mean, they heard what he said two years ago on Syria about bombing over the chemical weapons, only to see him pull back. Even the Europeans, a couple countries, like Britain and France, that the leaders had indicated an interest, really paid a political price when he cut off that limb.

    So talking to, for instance, a senior official in one of these Arab governments who is going to be at this meeting tomorrow in Saudi Arabia where Secretary Kerry is going to be making this case and trying to pump up this coalition and get what everyone is ready to do, he said, well, you know, we're committed, but we haven't heard any details, and we're waiting to hear what he has to say.

    And there are painful choices. For example, is Saudi Arabia really ready to cut off the funding that's going to support these same extremist groups in Syria? You know, will the Turks stop the flow of foreign fighters, which they have allowed to come through those borders into Syria and Iraq?

    So there are painful choices that they're nervous about making if they think that the president isn't really committed to a long-term engagement here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Does the strategy work without that support?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    I don't think so. I don't think so, Judy.

    And what's more, I don't think that the White House thinks so. The president doesn't want to look like he's George W. Bush pretty much going it alone, say, in Iraq. And, so, they are very — as you can see how hard Kerry, Secretary Kerry is working and how hard the president's been working the phones to have this look like a multinational, you know, coalition of the willing, in that sense, going back to some old playbooks.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Domenico, meanwhile, public opinion in all of this, while this has been happening, has been shifting. The president's — when you ask people, what do they think of the president's handling of foreign policy, it's at an all-time low, but at the same time, public support, we're told, for taking military action over there has increased.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, we have seen in three new polls this week, one from CNN, ABC, and the NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll.

    The NBC poll found that President Obama's foreign policy handling, 32 percent, an all-time low, his job approval at 40 percent, also an all-time low. What that says to us is that this president is really facing a very critical, kind of fine line that he has to walk tonight in the challenge that he's facing, because he needs to make the case to kind of a war-weary public whether or not we should continue to basically ramp up in Syria and in Iraq, when they have, in the past, been reticent to do so.

    Now, what the polling has found is that 61 percent of Americans now are saying that they agree that it's in the U.S. interest to go and fight the Islamic State group. Now, that's up from just last year. Margaret's mentioning Syria, going in to hit, Syria 21 percent last year.

    When you look at American attitudes on military force against the Islamic State, there's more limited support, however, because it's not an all-in thing. Forty percent support airstrikes; 34 percent support airstrikes and ground troops.

    Now, what that tells you is three-quarters of the country supports some action, but limited to those airstrikes, yes, but ground troops is a different ball game.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, it's fair to say the president is working on two different audiences tonight, the American public opinion, as well as foreign people — the foreign allies and enemies abroad.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Right. And it limits, really, what the president's policy can be going forward. If 85 percent of the country said that they were in favor of ground troops, you might see a slightly different policy that could be put forward.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And I'm hearing from foreign diplomats there's concern that, is the president really committed to this for geostrategic reasons, or is it to answer some of these concerns on the part of the American public after the beheading of these two journalists?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And it could be all of the above.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And speaking of which, that apparently is what has changed public opinion.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, thank you both, Domenico, Margaret.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And we ask all of you to tune in at 9:00 Eastern for a "NewsHour" special report. We will have live coverage of the president's address to the nation, plus analysis from Mark Shields and David Brooks.

    And if you're away from a television, we will be live-streaming all of our coverage on our Web site. You can watch us on your computer or your mobile device.

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