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Obama Pushes Back Against Opponents Of Syrian Refugees In U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Obama is traveling in Asia this week. That has not stopped him from carrying on a long-distance debate over U.S. policy toward Syrian refugees. The president has also defended his strategy in the fight against ISIS, while attacking his critics in sometimes personal terms. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley's with us now.

Hey Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi Ari.

SHAPIRO: I imagine President Obama might want to be talking about his Asia-Pacific trade deal this week or maybe the recent free elections in Myanmar, but he has not shied away from the news of the week, which has been this difficult subject of Syrian refugees in the U.S.

HORSLEY: Not at all. Take a listen to this exchange yesterday that the president had with AP reporter Kathleen Hennessey. This came during a news conference in Manila.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHLEEN HENNESSEY: Have you also wanted to comment at all on some of the discussion back at home about allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S.?

BARACK OBAMA: Yeah, I've got some comments on it.

HENNESSEY: Yeah, I thought you might.

HORSLEY: You can hear the president is almost itching to weigh in on this subject. Now, the U.S. has, so far, taken in a very small number of Syrian refugees, about 2,000 since the civil war there began, but Obama has promised to accept another 10,000 or so over the next year.

SHAPIRO: And as we just heard, there's a lot of pushback in this country towards the refugee program. President Obama was really outspoken in defending it.

HORSLEY: He has been. You know, on Monday, the president was particularly critical of the idea floated by Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz that maybe the U.S. should focus on helping only Christian refugees. Obama says that kind of religious test would play right in to the ISIS narrative. And then yesterday in the Philippines, the president returned to this subject, and he basically accused Republican candidates of cowering in the face of women and children, who make up the bulk of the refugee population.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: These are the same folks, oftentimes, who suggest that they're so tough that just talking to Putin or staring down ISIL or using some additional rhetoric somehow's going to solve the problems out there. But apparently they're scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion.

HORSLEY: Obama said, that doesn't sound very tough to me.

SHAPIRO: Scott, you and I both covered this president for several years as White House correspondents. This tone sounds unusual to me. And, you know, I remember President Obama, at one point, said that he has something that rhymes with a bucket list for his last couple years in office. Is this the president just saying bucket?

HORSLEY: It is certainly a more personal tone than we usually hear, at least in public, from this president. I think it shows how strongly he feels about this subject. Maybe there's also some element of frustration here at the tenor of the debate back home. And who knows, maybe even a bit of jet lag as well. At the same time, while the president's been pushing this heated rhetoric on the refugee issue, he's drawn criticism for being too cool in his response to last week's terror attacks in Paris. If you go back to Friday in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the president came out. He gave a very strong statement. But by Monday, he was very much on the defensive as reporters were grilling him over his counter-ISIS strategy. Obama insists the attacks in Paris are not a reason to change that strategy and he said he's not going to take some rash military action just to satisfy those who are, in his words, popping off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Every few months I go to Walter Reed and I see a 25-year-old kid who's paralyzed or has lost his limbs, and some of those are people I've ordered into battle. And so I can't afford to play some of the political games that others may.

SHAPIRO: Scott, how is all of this going over?

HORSLEY: Well, even some observers who are normally supportive of the president have been critical of his tone this week. You know, Obama gave an interview to GQ magazine before the attacks - it was just published though - in which he says, even if you get your policy right, you need good communication to bring the American people along with you. And while Obama is certainly convinced his policies on ISIS and the Syrian refugees are right, his style of communication this week may not have won many Americans over.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

Thanks Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.