Republicans see political opportunity in Obama response to failed airplane bomb

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; A01

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."

"It's one of the few cards that Republicans still continue to hold over the Democrats," he said. "It is something that is exploitable by them."

Obama's approval rating on national security has remained relatively steady since he took office. In a mid-November Washington Post-ABC News poll, 53 percent of Americans said they approved of the way Obama was handling the threat of terrorism, while 41 percent said they disapproved.

But pollsters warned that the president's standing is tenuous, especially as the threat of terrorism remains a constant in the American psyche, with the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay; the looming trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other 9/11 defendants in New York City; and stepped-up security searches at airports.

"There's a certain fragility to his numbers on the perception of how he's handling national security issues," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. "They certainly can move and move quickly based on a specific incident such as this." The Detroit incident is "a black eye" for the administration, Newhouse continued, because it feeds the perception that dangerous jihadists are "falling through the cracks."

Cheers and jibes

Even when Republicans agree with Obama, they find ways to characterize him as vacillating and indecisive. Republicans backed his order to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to continue a war that is deeply unpopular with his party's liberal base, but they criticized how long it took him to arrive at the decision. They cheered Obama for backing a major military attack on senior al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and for sharply increasing the number of drone-fired missile attacks against insurgent targets in western Pakistan. But they criticized him for deciding to transfer detainees out of the Guantanamo Bay prison and to allow the 9/11 defendants to face trial in New York.

"It's political schizophrenia," Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview. "He seems almost awkward when he's talking about terrorism."

The health-care debate demonstrated how successful Republicans and their allies can be in selling a message to the American people, even when some of their facts are in doubt. As they've sought to push their case on terrorism, Democrats have quickly issued rebukes this week.

"Republicans have decided to play politics with this nomination by blocking final confirmation," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday of the effort by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), to block Obama's nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration. "Not only is this a failed strategy, but a dangerous one as well with serious potential consequences for our country."

Axelrod accused Republicans of seeking to exploit last week's attempted bombing and predicted that their effort would fail with the American people. "There are those who want to solve the problem, and there are those who want to exploit it," he said. "This is not the time for politics."

The Republican strategy is further complicated by the fact that the nation's counterterrorism intelligence and security procedures were created after Sept. 11, 2001, by Bush and congressional Republicans. Current watch-list systems were put in place years ago and have not changed. In addition, the former Guantanamo Bay detainees who showed up in the al-Qaeda leadership in Yemen were released by Bush two years ago.

Staff reporters Michael D. Shear and Karen DeYoung and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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