The 9/11 anniversary — coupled with reports of a credible terrorist threat this weekend — provided Obama with chances to subtly remind voters of his security bona fides.
On Saturday, the president convened a meeting of his national security team to discuss the threat. Then he and his wife, Michelle, visited Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60, the area for service members who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
On Sunday, Obama plans to visit the three 9/11 attack sites. In the morning, he will give a reading at Ground Zero in New York City. Then he will lay wreaths in Shanksville, Pa., and, later in the afternoon, at the Pentagon. At each site, he will meet privately with victims’ families.
Sunday night, Obama is scheduled to address the “Concert for Hope” at the Kennedy Center, a speech likely to be televised nationally on cable.
White House officials say Obama’s role at the commemorations will be deliberately “low-key.”
“We don’t need to beat our chests about our success in counterterrorism,” said a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal viewpoints. “I think it’s self-evident over the last several months.”
Still, administration officials are taking steps to highlight anti-terrorism achievements when they can, making a case that, contrary to criticism from the left and right, Obama’s successes stem from his policy decisions and not just from those he adopted from the Bush era.
Drawing down troops in Iraq helped shift resources to fighting al-Qaeda, the White House official said, and the president made an early choice to revive the hunt for bin Laden, the official said.
In his Saturday radio address, Obama declared that “America is stronger” and that “we’ve taken the fight to al-Qaeda like never before.” White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley, speaking at a 9/11 anniversary event Thursday, said al-Qaeda has “lost more key leaders in rapid succession than at any time since 9/11.”
That point is argued in a lengthy background document produced by the White House under the headline “Counterterrorism Actions,” which lists terrorist killings and repeatedly refers to the bin Laden mission as a sign of successful decision making. “Rather than pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach, the Obama Administration relies on flexibility and precision, applying the right tools in the right way and under the right circumstances . . . as we did in the case of Osama bin Laden,” the document says.
Brian Katulis, a foreign-policy expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, said it would be “almost inconceivable” that Obama’s reelection campaign won’t highlight the bin Laden killing.
“Ordering the risky operation was a gutsy leadership call on the president’s part, and the success represented a major turning point,” Katulis said.
Even as Republicans credit Obama for his anti-terrorism work, they still see foreign policy as a subject area they can exploit. GOP candidates continue to accuse the president of conducting an “apology tour” for America’s actions.
And GOP strategists see little cost in giving Obama credit for his successes, which they say are a vindication of the Bush administration.
“You don’t get a lot of points for keep on keepin’ on,” said Stephen J. Hadley, who was national security adviser in the Bush White House. “There’s a lot of continuity, and people will give him some credit for that. But in the campaign, it’s going to be more of an avoidance of criticism than something he’s going to get a lot of mileage out of.”
Staff polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.