But Obama's remarks weren't an off-the-cuff flub. Rather they reflected a shift that he hopes to make in the final two years of his presidency to focus more attention what he believes pose the greatest long-term threat to the nation. Some of those threats were outlined in his new National Security Strategy released late last week. They include: climate change, global pandemics and weapons of mass destruction.
After 14 years in which terrorism has dominated the national conversation, Obama's new strategy amounts to a corrective, said administration officials. White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Tuesday said that "the president and his team continue to be vigilant" when it comes to the terror threat. But he also suggested Obama wanted to take a broader view. "The point the president is making is that there are many more people on an annual basis who have to confront the direct impact on their lives of climate change or the spread of disease, than terrorism."
Obama is hardly the first person to make this point. Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has noted that in recent years more Americans have died from falling furniture than from terror attacks.
But Obama's Vox interview showed that talking about terrorism remains tricky territory in which his every word is scrutinized. In talking about the terror threat Obama said it was legitimate for people to be concerned with vicious zealots who "randomly shoot a bunch of folks" in a Paris deli. The comment led to a new wave of questions about whether the president believed that the terrorist attack on the deli was motivated by anti-semitism.
Critics honed in on the word "randomly."
"Does the president have any doubt that those terrorists attacked that deli because there would be Jews in that deli?" Jonathan Karl, ABC's White House correspondent.
The president chose the adverb, Earnest said, to indicate that the victims were "not targeted by name, but where they "randomly" happened to be. He noted that there were non-Jews in the deli. Later he issued a tweet to clarify his statement:
Our view has not changed. Terror attack at Paris Kosher market was motivated by anti-Semitism. POTUS didn't intend to suggest otherwise.— J Earnest (Archived) (@PressSec44) February 10, 2015
More broadly, the debate over the threat posed by terrorism reflects a divide within the foreign policy community in Washington. Traditionalists see the breakdown of international order in the Middle East, the rise of China and the threat posed by Russia as the main threat to security in the world. Obama's new National Security Strategy places Obama in a second, less traditional camp, said Thomas Wright, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution.
This group places the priority on issues such as "climate change and nonproliferation," Wright wrote in an essay on the Brookings website.