Obama address sets stage for 2016 election campaign

Ben White: Obama's gun proposal won't work
Ben White: Obama's gun proposal won't work

President Barack Obama''s primetime address guarantees that terrorism and Muslim relations will be central to the 2016 election campaign, possibly eclipsing the economy as the top issue as the primaries begin in two months.

And Obama may have done Republican candidates a favor by breaking little new policy ground in Sunday night's speech and spending at least as much time lecturing Americans on what not to do as on how he planned to keep people safe.

The president's approval rating on combating terror was already at a low point of 40 percent in a Washington Post poll taken before the San Bernardino attack and it's not likely to rise now.

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It's not that Americans differ so much from Obama on what to do about ISIS. And most of the GOP candidates save perhaps for Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina would also rely mostly on continued airstrikes and coalition building rather than sending legions of troops to start a new U.S. ground war in the Middle East, one that Obama says ISIS would warmly welcome and use as a recruiting tool.

But people are rallying to candidates like Donald Trump who talk much tougher than Obama on destroying ISIS and combating lone-wolf terror attacks against the homeland. In his Oval Office address, Obama again flatly rejected such tough talk as a solution and instead appealed for an end to divisive rhetoric about Muslim-Americans as well as for fresh gun-control efforts. This thrills the progressive Democratic base but risks being well out of step with broader public opinion.

The biggest problem for Obama on gun control is that his main appeal — to block anyone on a no-fly list from buying weapons — has significant constitutional problems. The no-fly lists are notoriously inaccurate and include people charged with no offense. Such a ban would face both Second and Fifth Amendment due process challenges.

The trouble for Democrats with Obama's approach was clear in party front-runner Hillary Clinton's response in that she didn't give one. Clinton let her own remarks on terrorism earlier in the day stand for themselves and did not issue any immediate endorsement of Obama's speech.

The former secretary of state has her own strong and relatively hawkish foreign policy credentials, and she clearly does not want to be associated with the White House's low ratings on the subject.

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President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2015.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

Republicans of course jumped all over the speech.

"Is that all there is? We need a new President — FAST!" Trump tweeted after the address. In his response on Fox News, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said Obama was "completely overwhelmed" by the changing nature of the terrorist threat.

Obama did at times seemed resigned to more instances of domestic terror attacks. "The fact is that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies — no matter how effective they are — cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual is motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology," he said before making his push for gun control.

He may be right about this. But saying "sorry but this is likely to happen again" is not really the kind of comforting message many Americans want to hear.

Read MoreGOP hopefuls chide Obama for speech

There was also no discussion of renewing domestic intelligence gathering tools that have lapsed, arguably making it more difficult to identify and track would-be terrorists on American soil.

Rubio has shrewdly identified this issue as a potential winner in the GOP primary campaign, using it to go after Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has surged to second behind Trump in Iowa. Rubio has repeatedly hit Cruz for voting in favor of the "USA Freedom Act of 2015" which curtailed bulk collection of Americans' phone records and Internet metadata. Such pro-privacy efforts play well with antigovernment libertarians but may lose a great deal of currency with the rest of the GOP — and the public at large — in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks.

Obama's speech, to be fair, had some strong points. He talked frankly about the threat from radical Islam in ways that he hasn't done much of in the past, at least not on such a big stage.

And he issued a direct challenge to the hundreds of millions of peaceful Muslims in America and across the world to directly condemn and confront radicalism.

"This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse," Obama said. "Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda promote."

But the speech overall presented Republicans with broad opportunities to attack the president. And it left Democrats in a vulnerable position on perhaps the most critical issue heading into 2016.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.