By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
The Obama administration responded sharply yesterday to former vice president Richard B. Cheney's comments in a weekend interview that the new president "is making some choices that, in my mind, will in fact raise the risk to the American people" of another terrorist attack.
"I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy," Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, said during his daily briefing to journalists at the White House. "So they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal."
Gibbs's comments reflected the administration's pique over Cheney's wide-ranging remarks made Sunday on CNN, his first televised interview since leaving office. The former vice president, deeply unpopular in opinion polls, accused the young administration of using the abysmal economy to push through a broad and liberal expansion of government and strongly defended Bush-era policies at home and abroad.
The back-and-forth represented a political opportunity for the Obama administration, despite its pledges to avoid partisan confrontation. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted when the Bush administration left office in January found that 30 percent of respondents approved of Cheney's performance, lower than Bush's own.
It followed a speech delivered by Rush Limbaugh last month during which the conservative radio host said he hoped Obama's policies "failed," prompting Democrats to question who speaks for the Republican Party and what it stands for. In his interview, Cheney said of congressional Republicans that "it will take them a while to get their act together" in finding ways to criticize a popular young president.
Gibbs concentrated his response on Cheney's assertion that the Obama administration's counterterrorism policies, including plans to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and end interrogation methods that the International Committee of the Red Cross has characterized as torture, have made the country more susceptible to terrorist attack.
Cheney, who has made similar remarks before but never in such depth, called those policies "absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed" in avoiding another attack.
Cheney said Obama had shifted the country from a war footing to a strategy resembling law enforcement, adding that the new administration is "very much giving up that center of attention and focus that's required, and that concept of military threat that is essential if you're going to successfully defend the nation against further attacks."
Gibbs responded with a pointed reminder that the Bush administration failed to capture or kill some of those chiefly responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in other cases had "delayed" bringing those captured to justice by holding them for years without charge.
The Obama administration has also maintained several Bush-era military policies, including missile strikes by Predator drones in Pakistan's tribal areas that border Afghanistan.
"I would say that the president has made quite clear that keeping the American people safe and secure is the job -- is the most serious job that he has each and every day," Gibbs said. "I think the president saw over the past seven-plus years the delay in bringing the very people to justice that committed terrorist acts on this soil and on foreign soil."
Asked about the tone of his remarks toward Cheney, Gibbs said, "Sometimes I ask for forgiveness rather than permission." He said he hoped his "sarcasm" didn't "mask the seriousness" of his remarks that "the very perpetrators that the vice president says he's concerned about weren't brought to justice."
In office for less than two months, the Obama administration has reminded the public with increasing frequency that it inherited a $1.2 trillion budget deficit, a 14-month-old recession and two wars. In the interview, Cheney suggested that Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan, expensive bailout plans that began under Bush and a $3.6 trillion budget proposal -- which the administration projects will cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term -- would "constitute the biggest or one of the biggest expansions of federal authority over the private economy in the history of the republic."
In response, Gibbs said, "I think not taking economic advice from Dick Cheney would be maybe the best possible outcome of yesterday's interview."
A Cheney adviser said the former vice president decided to accept the CNN invitation because he respects John King, host of the cable channel's "State of the Union" talk show, and wanted to offer his "real concerns" about Obama's economic and national security policies. King has known Cheney for 20 years and has interviewed him before for CNN.
"We've not coordinated our appearances with the Bush folks," the adviser said.
Mary Matalin, a former top Cheney adviser who remains a family friend and confidant, said, "There is no strategy [by Cheney] to reenter the national political dialogue." But, she said, "there's no living human being with more experience at every level of government than the vice president."
"He has in his own portfolio, and has lived through what works and what doesn't, issues of war and peace, the economy and a panoply of other issues," she said.
Matalin said Cheney decided to speak now "to the extent that the more these policies add up, the more his concern grows."
"I think people are opening their minds, getting out of this fascination, honeymoon period," Matalin said, referring to the Obama administration. "They're entering a 'seeking information' period, and it's hard to break through the cacophony."
"People are listening more," Matalin said. "And they are not hearing anything else out there" from Republicans.
"I doubt that the Obama administration will care too much about what Cheney says," said John Feehery, former spokesman for then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "But if something does go wrong, there will be a record of opposition from the former vice president that people will refer to."
Staff writers Howard Kurtz and Perry Bacon Jr. and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.