The president's speech followed Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people and wounded 21. Authorities say a couple carried out the attack and the wife pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its leader in a Facebook post.
Obama said that while there was no evidence that the shooters were directed by a terror network overseas or part of a broader plot, "the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalization."
The president said "Over the last few years, however, the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase. As we've become better at preventing complex multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turn to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society."
He added that "the threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won't depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values or giving into fear. That's what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless. And by drawing upon every aspect of American power."
Obama's speech was likely to leave his critics unsatisfied. He announced no significant shift in U.S. strategy and offered no new policy prescriptions for defeating ISIL, underscoring both his confidence in his current approach and the lack of easy options for countering the group.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., dismissed the president's address as "a half-hearted attempt to defend and distract from a failing policy."
Obama called for for cooperation between private companies and law enforcement to ensure potential attackers can't use technology to evade detection. He also called for a review of the visa waiver program for people seeking to come to the U.S. and said he would urge private companies and law enforcement leaders to work together to ensure potential attackers can't use technology to evade detection.
Obama also called on Congress to pass new authorization for military actions underway against ISIL in Iraq and Syria and to approve legislation to keep people on the "no-fly list" from buying guns.
The president also reiterated his call for tightening gun laws, saying no matter how effective law enforcement and intelligence are, they can't identify every would-be shooter. He called it a matter of national security to prevent potential killers from getting guns.
"What we can do, and must do, is make it harder for them to kill," he said.
Obama stands little chance of getting the Republican-led Congress to agree to any gun control measures. On Thursday, the Senate rejected legislation barring people suspected by the government of being terrorists from purchasing firearms. Gun rights advocates say such a ban would violate the rights of people who haven't been convicted of crimes.
In speaking from the Oval Office, Obama turned to a tool of the presidency that he has used infrequently. He's made televised statements from the Oval Office just twice, the last in 2010 when he announced the end of combat missions in Iraq.
While Obama has spoken frequently about ISIL in recent news conferences and other events, the decision to speak in prime-time reflected concern among his advisers that his message isn't breaking through. The White House has been particularly concerned about the heated rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates about Muslims.
The president implored Americans to not turn against Muslims at home, saying ISIL was driven by a desire to spark a war between the West and Islam. Still, he called on Muslims in the U.S. and around the world to take up the cause of fighting the group and others like it.
"We welcome President Obama's strong statement calling for national unity and rejecting anti-Muslim 'suspicion and hate,'" said Nihad Awad, executive director of The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) after the speech. "The president was clear in disassociating Islam from the thugs of ISIS, who are the common enemy of all Americans and of all Muslims worldwide."
Obama repeated his long-standing opposition to an American-led ground war in the Middle East and made no mention of the more aggressive action others have suggested, including a enforcing a no-fly zone and safe corridors in Syria.
The president's critics — and increasingly, some members of his own party — have questioned his strategy. Hours before he spoke, Hillary Clinton — his former secretary of state and the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination — said the U.S. is "not winning" the fight against ISIL.
The Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus released a statement immediately after Obama's speech saying "The path laid out by President Obama and supported by Hillary Clinton has not worked, and ISIS has only gained in strength. The attacks in San Bernardino should serve as a wake-up call for Obama and Clinton that the way to victory is not through the status quo but refocusing our efforts to defeat ISIS.”
Obama has insisted that ISIL is contained in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has set its sights elsewhere in the world, launching attacks in Lebanon and Turkey, and downing a Russia airliner over Egypt.
The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris marked the group's most aggressive actions in Europe, a coordinated effort that left 130 people dead and wounded hundreds more.