By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008
The joint appearance at Ground Zero today by Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama will not only commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks but also will mark a rare moment in the campaign when both candidates focus on terrorism, an issue that has lost prominence for American voters as the deadly attacks recede in the public memory.
Once the key concern that propelled Republicans to big electoral victories in 2002 and 2004, terrorism has often seemed the forgotten issue of 2008. Both candidates touched on the subject only briefly in their convention speeches and are emphasizing the economy, change for Washington and other issues on the stump.
The shift reflects a nod to the changing attention of the electorate. At this time in 2002 and 2004, about a quarter of all Americans polled by Gallup called terrorism or national security the country's top problem. That dropped to 16 percent in 2006, and now 4 percent of those polled deem those issues the most important the nation must confront.
"The whole issue has not gotten anywhere near the attention most people would have predicted four years ago," said Paul R. Pillar, a leading authority on terrorism and a retired CIA analyst. "It is kind of striking that this set of issues that became such a huge national preoccupation in the years after 9/11 has faded so much."
Pillar and other experts say concern over terrorism has traditionally waxed following dramatic incidents such as the Sept. 11 attacks or the wave of attacks by Hezbollah in the 1980s, only to wane as public attention drifts. In the current political climate, analysts said, the absence of a subsequent al-Qaeda attack on U.S. soil has left the electorate with a mistaken view that the terrorist threat has diminished.
Still, both Obama and McCain have tried to use the terrorism issue to emphasize larger themes about their candidacies and to question the judgment of their adversary. The McCain camp has suggested that Obama would adopt a law enforcement model it says was favored by the Clinton administration in the 1990s; Obama's advisers say McCain is too fixated on the use of military power.
The war in Iraq remains a touchstone: McCain regards the conflict as central to a war with Islamic terrorists, whereas Obama has described Iraq as a distraction from what should have been the main focus on Afghanistan.
"Obama persists in the fiction that Iraq was never a central front in the war on terror," said Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top foreign policy adviser. "Had we left Iraq in the time and manner Senator Obama advocated, al-Qaeda would have achieved a victory that dwarfed what they believe they achieved in Somalia -- it would have been devastating for our interests." Scheunemann was referring to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia during the Clinton administration, a move that al-Qaeda has used for propaganda.
Obama advisers emphasize his call in the summer of 2007 for more troops and resources in Afghanistan, where the United States and its allies have been battling a resurgent Taliban militia in recent months. "He called for sending two brigades of U.S. forces to Afghanistan 13 months before the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the same thing," said Richard A. Clarke, the onetime Bush and Clinton adviser who has been chairing an advisory panel on counterterrorism for the Obama campaign.
Despite the rhetorical differences, the candidates share important similarities. Both McCain and Obama have called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility for suspected terrorists and more humane interrogation procedures for suspects. They both voted in the Senate for the wireless surveillance program promoted by the Bush administration.
In their speeches on the subject, both candidates have emphasized the need to use all instruments of national power -- intelligence, diplomacy, economic assistance -- and not just military power in defeating militant jihadism.
Obama, for instance, has called for spending $5 billion over three years to forge a new international intelligence and law enforcement "infrastructure" to take down terrorist networks in Asia and Africa. Clarke says a chunk of the money would be used to train foreign police officers in the techniques of community policing popularized in the United States in recent years.
Clarke said Obama would try to improve America's image in the Muslim world. Like President Bush, Clarke noted, Obama has emphasized that the United States is not at war with Islam. But Clarke added: "It's not credible coming from a guy who's invaded and occupied Iraq. It would be credible from a guy who says we need to pull out from Iraq."
McCain has proposed some similar policies, calling for a "deployable police presence" to train foreign police to counter Islamic extremists. He calls for a new civil-military agency patterned after the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services to infiltrate terrorist networks, among other tasks. He has also said it was a "mistake" to dismantle the U.S. Information Agency in 1998 and fold its functions into the State Department. "We need to re-create an independent agency with the sole purpose of getting America's message to the world -- a critical element in combating Islamic extremism," McCain said last summer in New Hampshire.
Pillar said he doubts there would be much difference, whomever is elected president. "The tools and the techniques that are available to use are the same tools and techniques that have been around for many years," he said. "There isn't a whole lot that any one leader at the top can do to change the relative emphasis placed on one tool rather than another."
McCain holds a 20-percentage-point advantage over Obama in terms of public perceptions over which candidate would be better at fighting terrorism, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. President Bush held a similar lead over Sen John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) at this point in the 2004 campaign, though Kerry closed the gap to nine points by Election Day.
The key variable that could scramble the equation is a terrorist attack in the next two months.
"John Kerry was on a trajectory to victory if Osama bin Laden did not release a tape on the Friday before the election," said Robert M. Shrum, the top adviser to Kerry in 2004. "The Republicans say we have kept you safe for these years, but you just don't know how people would react [to a new attack], and how the candidates react would make a big difference."
Polling director Jon Cohen, polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.