Page 2 of 2   <      

Republicans see political opportunity in Obama response to failed airplane bomb

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.

<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company