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West Wing Briefing

Before turkey pardon, pat-down questions

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Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole testified on Capitol Hill. He defended body scanners and revised pat-downs that some travelers say are too invasive. (Nov. 17)

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 8:58 AM

Usually the biggest decision for the president during Thanksgiving week is whether or not to pardon the turkey at the annual White House ceremony.

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But after a weekend in which administration officials gave several divergent statements on security procedures used by the Transportation Security Administration, the White House is likely to face a different set of questions: Does President Obama consider pat-downs "offensive" and would he also "avoid" them if he could, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton indicated in an interview Sunday?

And will he ask TSA to change its policies?

The White House, already struggling with a resurgent GOP whose leaders wouldn't even meet with the president last week, now faces an entirely different challenge that most Americans can understand better than a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

The new TSA security procedures - which require some passengers either to enter full-body scanners that many consider overly intrusive, or submit to an intense full-body pat-down - have turned into an unusual political firestorm that appears to be have caught the administration off-guard.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs played down the controversy and defended TSA. Four days later, his boss hinted wiggle room and suggested the airport agency should examine its policies more carefully.

"At this point, TSA, in consultation with our counterterrorism experts, have indicated to me that the procedures that they've been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing," Obama said at a news conference in Lisbon that was supposed to be about international security issues. "But I'm going to - every week I meet with my counterterrorism team and I'm constantly asking them whether - is what we're doing absolutely necessary? Have we thought it through? Are there other ways of accomplishing it that meet the same objectives?"

Administration officials seem not to have coordinated their responses on the issue, as TSA chief John Pistole at first emphasized he was "not going to change" the agency's policies, only to indicate flexibility later Sunday, after the interview in which Clinton questioned the tactic.

The TSA controversy follows a pattern: The administration occasionally misses rising opposition to a policy until that criticism has turned powerful. Like last year, when conservatives spread the falsehood that the health-care bill included "death panels" and blasted the administration's plan to close Guantanomo Bay and hold trials of accused terrorists on U.S. soil, the dispute over the TSA procedures had long simmered among members of the traveling public and on conservative Web sites. But the administration initially did little to buttress its own view and defend those policies.

Welcome to Kokomo!

On Tuesday, the president and Vice President Biden will head to the tiny Indiana town of Kokomo for their first major domestic political event event since the "shellacking" their Democratic Party took on Election Day.

They will visit a Chrysler plant in the town as a part of an effort to tout the administration's work in improving the auto industry and the broader U.S. economy.

But the trip is in many ways the opening move of Campaign 2012. Obama won a stunning victory in Indiana in 2008 that illustrated the strength of his campaign. But his popularity has plunged in the Hoosier State, and it's unclear whether he can win there again.

Pardoning

Obama will indeed pardon a turkey this Wednesday, in accordance with venerable White House tradition. But the lucky bird won't head to Disneyland, as it has the past several years.

Instead, it will go to George Washington's home in Mount Vernon, according to the Associated Press.

A Disneyland official told the AP "we're moving on to do new things and surprise our guests with new things."

(WATCH: a 2009 White House video spoof in advance of the pardoning ceremony.)


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