Barack Obama was always vulnerable to charges that he will be weak on national security. He was a relative political newcomer with no history of military service. He opposed the war in Iraq and pledged to roll back many of the George W Bush administration’s toughest anti-terrorism policies.
At one politically perilous moment just months into Obama’s presidency, the young commander in chief appeared at the National Archives to declare a “new direction” in fighting terrorism, only to be scolded as “naive” by former vice president Dick Cheney, the graying architect of aggressive post-9/11 policies.
But as the country observes the 10th anniversary of the 2001 attacks, something once unthinkable has shown up in the polls: National security has gone from being Obama’s big political weakness to his only area of policy strength.
Now potential Republican presidential nominees who eviscerate him on the economy offer grudging credit on terrorism. Texas Governor Rick Perry, for example, said in last week’s GOP debate that Obama “maintained the chase” to find Osama bin Laden. “I tip my hat to him,” Perry said.
And even the stern-faced Cheney throws out a compliment now and then.
“Guantanamo is still open, they still have military commissions for trying terrorism suspects,” he said recently on Fox News. “And I think you’ve got to give him credit for the operation to get Osama bin Laden.”
The challenge for Obama is whether his record on security might help reassure voters who are turning their backs on him because of doubts about his skill to fix the economy.
So far, that hasn’t happened. Instead, the president who bagged the world’s most-wanted man is perceived as a weakling who was rolled by Republicans in the debt-ceiling debate and whose hopes for a prime-time address to Congress were foiled by GOP opposition and then the start time of a football game. The contrast has proved frustrating to the president’s team.
“I don’t think the remaining al-Qaeda leadership that’s on the run would think of [Obama] as a weak leader,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign strategist. “I think they think of him as a very determined and relentless person.”
A Washington Post/ABC News poll published last week found that 62% of Americans — including nearly six in 10 independents and four in 10 Republicans — approve of the job he has done in combating terrorism.
In the same survey, Obama’s overall approval rating stood at a new low of 43%. A little more than a third of Americans approved of his handling of the economy, the poll found. Other surveys found that he is increasingly seen as a weak leader.
The dynamic presents difficulties both for Obama and his potential Republican foes, all of whom are trying to gauge the role that national security will play in an election otherwise dominated by the economy. And it creates the unusual prospect of a Democratic president playing the toughness card against a Republican challenger such as Perry or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney with few if any foreign-policy credentials.
“People will look at the other candidates and will ask hard questions about how they feel they will handle security,” Axelrod said.
He added: “It’s part of what people consider when they elect a president, for sure. Does it supplant the economy debate? No, but I don’t think it’s without meaning. As you tell the story of this president and who he is, that’s certainly an element of the story.”
The 9/11 anniversary — coupled with reports of a credible terrorist threat this weekend — provided Obama with chances to subtly remind voters of his security bona fides.
On Saturday, the president convened a meeting of his national security team to discuss the threat. Then he and his wife, Michelle, visited Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60, the area for service members who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
On Sunday, Obama plans to visit the three 9/11 attack sites. In the morning, he will give a reading at Ground Zero in New York City. Then he will lay wreaths in Shanksville, Pa., and, later in the afternoon, at the Pentagon. At each site, he will meet privately with victims’ families.
Sunday night, Obama is scheduled to address the “Concert for Hope” at the Kennedy Center.
White House officials say Obama’s role at the commemorations will be deliberately “low-key.”“We don’t need to beat our chests about our success in counter­terrorism,” said a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
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