Republicans see political opportunity in Obama response to failed airplane bomb

Revisions in airport security procedures, including in Los Angeles, have helped keep the threat of terrorism on Americans' minds.
Revisions in airport security procedures, including in Los Angeles, have helped keep the threat of terrorism on Americans' minds. (Nick Ut/associated Press)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Republicans are jumping on President Obama's response to the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner as the latest evidence that Democrats do not aggressively fight terrorism to protect the country, returning to a campaign theme that the GOP has employed successfully over the past decade.

Since before Obama was sworn into office, Republicans have been building a case that he is weak on national security, and in the wake of the intelligence and security failures that led to last week's incident, they think that narrative might stick. Congressional Republicans and GOP pollsters said they believe the administration's response to the failed attack on a Detroit-bound plane -- along with Obama's decisions on the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the intelligence lapses connected to November's massacre at Fort Hood, Tex. -- damage the Democratic brand.

After dispatching surrogates to speak on his behalf over the weekend, Obama tried to quell critics who thought he had been quiet for too long by addressing the nation Tuesday for the second time in two days. But Republicans said his admission of "systemic failures" by U.S. intelligence agencies -- which did not share fully or act upon information about the Nigerian suspect on the Northwest Airlines flight -- underscored what they have been arguing for days. The result of the GOP offensive could be to create doubt, even fear, among the American public that Obama cannot protect them.

Republicans spent much of the 2008 campaign criticizing Obama for his lack of national security experience and have not relented since he took office almost a year ago. Eleven months out from the 2010 midterm elections, however, pollsters said it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict whether the issue will drive voters.

The nation's economy and health-care reform are sure to be dominant themes. But if the public remains concerned about the safety of air travel and about international terrorism, the Republican attacks on Obama could be "very influential," said Andrew Kohut, a veteran pollster and president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

"I don't know if it has legs, but it certainly has potential if it has legs," Kohut said.

As the GOP seeks a path out of the political abyss in the 2010 elections, its leaders seem to be turning to the issue of terrorism, which worked for them in the 2002 congressional midterms and in President George W. Bush's 2004 reelection.

"They just don't get it," Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, wrote in a fundraising letter for his gubernatorial campaign. "These are the same weak-kneed liberals who have recently tried to bring Guantanamo Bay terrorists right here to Michigan!"

A strategy with risks

But the strategy could be as risky as powerful for Republicans, who open themselves to criticism that they are exploiting acts of terrorism for partisan gain. In 2008, attacking Obama on national security proved to be a losing strategy, for both Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, who has battled Republicans on national security issues for decades, said the GOP is hoping to reclaim its political power on the issue.

"They can run on rhetoric," Axelrod said in an interview Tuesday. "We will run on our record when the time comes. . . . The president's record, I think, is very clear and very strong. This president has taken the fight to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Somalia, in Yemen. He has focused on the threat in a way that it hasn't been."

Still, Kohut said national security is "fertile territory for the GOP."

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