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A CNN/ORC poll released Monday shows ISIS has more Americans than ever before believing that the terrorists are winning

The shift in public perceptions on the danger posed by terrorism explains why political leaders are now betting so heavily on national security

Washington CNN  — 

This holiday season, terrorism, like the ghost of elections past, is already shaping the momentous political year ahead.

A CNN/ORC poll released Monday shows the rise and widening reach of ISIS has more Americans than ever before believing that terrorists are winning the global conflict with the U.S. and its allies that erupted after the September 11 attacks.

The fearful moment follows a confluence of events: ISIS’ widening ambitions of attacking the West, President Barack Obama’s struggles to reassure the public that he is up to the dangerous new test posed by the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, and the febrile atmosphere of a White House campaign in which Republican candidates have a vested electoral interest in giving voters the jitters.

Pessimism appears to be so deeply embedded in the citizenry that even instances of positive news like the recapture of the former ISIS stronghold Ramadi by Iraqi government forces on Monday are unlikely to mitigate the political challenge the group has handed Obama in his final year in office.

The CNN/ORC poll revealed that the country is overwhelmingly uneasy. Some 74% of those surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the nation’s progress in the war on terror. Discontent is highest among GOP voters – at 86% – but it’s also elevated among independents and Democrats, hinting at nationwide uncertainty over where the confrontation with ISIS will lead.

READ: CNN/ORC poll: More Americans say terrorists are winning than ever before

In a startling finding after a decade-and-a half of combat against radical Islamists, 40% of respondents said the terrorists were winning, 17 points above the previous high reached in August 2005.

A comfortable majority of those polled – 60% – disapprove of Obama’s handling of terrorism and 64% disapprove of the way he’s tackling ISIS.

Such figures are sobering for a White House that once advanced the President’s stewardship of the war on terror as an asset in his 2012 re-election campaign.

The shift in public perceptions on the danger posed by terrorism explains why political leaders, including 2016 presidential candidates highly sensitive to public opinion, are now betting so heavily on national security. After elections that largely turned on ending costly foreign wars in 2008 and the economy in 2012, White House hopefuls are gearing up for the kind of “who can keep America safe” clash that characterized the first post-9/11 midterm polls in 2002 and President George W. Bush’s re-election battle two years later.

Republican candidates especially are using dire rhetoric and seizing on the public disquiet showcased by the CNN poll to warn that the United States is locked in a war of civilizations against ISIS.

In the latest GOP presidential debate, held earlier this month, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio warned that Obama “hasn’t kept us safe,” while the senator’s former mentor, Jeb Bush, warned that America must “destroy ISIS before it destroys us.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, portraying himself as an unflinching foe of terrorists by virtue of his stint as a post-9/11 prosecutor, warned, “We have people across the country who are scared to death.”

Such apocalyptic rhetoric might overstate the threat to America from ISIS – few security experts believe at this stage that the group could endanger the nation’s existence. But it’s not just Republicans who have adapted in light of the public’s uneasiness, suggesting that the national mood is an enduring factor that could shape the entirety of the 2016 race.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has implicitly acknowledged flaws in the President’s performance in recent weeks, outlining a strategy to combat ISIS in Syria that is more detailed and robust than Obama’s own.

Apparently positioning herself for a general election clash with a Republican rather than her nominating fight in the more dovish Democratic Party, she’s given two major addresses on the issue since the Paris attacks.

Even the White House itself appears to recognize that, at least on the political front, it has fallen short, not only in its struggle to explain its anti-ISIS strategy but in convincing the American people that Obama is on top of the challenge.

The President was out of the country in November in the aftermath of the Paris attack, in which rampaging ISIS radicals killed more than 120 people.

A series of defensive exchanges with reporters on his global tour revealed an administration that apparently failed to gauge the intensity of reaction in the United States. Although the attack was not on U.S. soil, television networks gave it the same kind of wall-to-wall coverage that would have been merited were it in Washington or New York – a development that the White House seemed to take weeks to factor into its political strategy.

But it’s certainly trying to catch up now.

That explains why the President embarked on a vigorous set of public relations appearances before he left for his annual Hawaii vacation – including a televised prime-time address, a press conference and a trip to meet national security advisors at the Pentagon and the National Counterterrorism Center.

He’s also offering a stepped-up strategy of bombing raids against a widened range of ISIS targets in Syria, hints of a personal mea culpa and a promise to communicate to Americans that to give in to fear does the work of terrorism itself.

READ: Ramadi has been taken back from ISIS, Iraqis say

“Post-Paris, you had a saturation of news about the horrible attack there … as a consequence, if you’ve been watching television for the last month, all you have been seeing, all you have been hearing about is these guys with masks or black flags who are potentially coming to get you,” Obama told NPR in an interview last week.

“I understand why people are concerned about it, and this is a serious situation, but what is important is for people to recognize that the power, the strength of the United States and its allies are not threatened by an organization like this.”

Characteristically, Obama also appears to be blaming the American public’s fixation with ISIS not on the essence of his strategy but on his failure to communicate exactly how successful that strategy has been.

He frequently mentions the 9,000 air strikes that have been carried out against ISIS and argues that the group’s footprint in Iraq and Syria has in fact been narrowing – with the fall of Ramadi just the latest sign of progress.

CNN’s Barbara Starr and Jim Acosta reported on Sunday, meanwhile, that at a meeting at the Pentagon on December 14, Obama told top military officials that they needed to do a better job communicating the “narrative” of the ISIS war to Americans.

The administration is already seizing upon the Iraqi government’s recapture of Ramadi, aided by significant U.S. air support, to proclaim a milestone in the fight against ISIS.

A White House official said after the president was briefed on the latest developments Monday that the victory was a testament to the “courage and determination” of Iraqi forces and a “shared commitment” to push ISIS out of its safe havens.

Whatever the merits of Obama’s strategy to combat ISIS, it’s now clear that the White House understands that as well as a military strategy to defeat ISIS, it needs a domestic plan to win the political war over the rising terror threat as well.

CNN’s Kristen Holmes contributed to this report.