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WASHINGTON (AP) – Terrorism is creeping back to the forefront of the American mindset, creating an election-year issue for emboldened Republicans and forcing President Barack Obama to reassert himself after a wobbly period of homeland protection.
Republican Scott Brown’s startling Senate win in Massachusetts, propelled in part by his opposition to Obama’s terror-fighting approach, has weakened Obama’s legislative hand just as Congress is demanding answers about security. And although health care reform is the matter most immediately affected by Obama’s sudden loss of the minimum 60 votes he needs in the Senate on big legislation, his entire agenda will be reshaped in some way by the political fallout.
Public concern about terrorism is at its highest levels in months, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
In Obama’s favor: More than half of people, 54 percent, approve of his handling of terrorism, the poll found. That’s a higher rating than Obama gets for his handling of the economy, health care, Iraq, the budget deficit or taxes.
Yet Republicans traditionally claim security as a political strong suit, and recent events have not helped the party in power.
“It’s shaping up as an issue that Republicans are going to be able to use against Obama and this White House because there’s a sense that things are out of control,” said veteran Republican strategist Scott Reed said. “It’s touched a theme of, ‘What’s going on over there?'”
The nation is still jittery that a Nigerian man with ties to al-Qaida got by U.S. intelligence and security and attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. In November, an Army sergeant who had shown erratic behavior is alleged to have massacred 13 people at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas.
Both cases involved missed warning signs, and the Detroit scare so exposed flaws in the system that Obama called it a nearly disastrous “screw-up.”
Even the case of a high-society couple who managed to crash a White House state dinner on Nov. 24, a rare breach that allowed uninvited guests to get close to the president, has fed the narrative, Reed said.
As commander in chief, Obama holds much of the power on national security, but Congress can help him or block him on many fronts. Democrats head into November’s election with a 257-178 majority in the House and, once Brown is sworn in, a 59-41 majority in the Senate.
The hawkish line of argument that Brown used is likely one that Republicans will return to all year.
Brown says accused terrorists should not be tried in civilian courts and, more broadly, that the U.S. needs to tighten its grip in pursuing and interrogating suspects. Republicans will likely frame the matter as either being tough on terror or having a “pre-9/11 mentality,” as House Republican leader John Boehner put it.
Already, a partisan dispute has dealt Obama a setback on security. His choice to lead the Transportation Security Administration scrapped his own nomination Wednesday after a frustrating standoff with a Republican senator who had blocked it.
Hours of congressional hearings on terrorism this week have also put security up front. In one moment, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair accepted blame for the failings of Dec. 25 that allegedly allowed the suspect to ignite a bomb hidden in his underwear as his Northwest Airlines flight neared a landing.
On Thursday, Senate Republicans assailed the Obama administration for not considering, before suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was questioned by FBI agents, whether he should be declared an enemy combatant and turned over to the U.S. military rather than charged in court.
More scrutiny is likely over the effectiveness of the people whom Obama has put in charge of the security and intelligence communities, said Abraham Wagner, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University who specializes in the study of terrorism.
“I don’t think that just this election (Brown’s) is going to change the equation,” Wagner said. “What I do think is really going is that Obama euphoria is starting to wear off, and people are realizing it’s not a perfect world by putting Obama in there – and that there are some major flaws in the administration.”
Terrorism and security policy is not one issue, but a web over overlapping ones. Airport screenings. Intelligence sharing. Interrogation techniques. The proposed closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Civilian courts vs. military tribunals. The war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Drone strikes.
And the terror politics don’t always fall neatly along party lines.
Republican critics say Obama’s plan to close the Guantanamo military prison and ship the detainees elsewhere, including to the United States, will undermine national security. Yet on Afghanistan, which is at the center of Obama’s fight against terrorism, many Republicans are more behind the president on his buildup of troops than lawmakers of his party are.
Almost no issue brings a sense of unity.
“The one thing we need not do is politicize the fight against terrorism,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday amid new signs that was happening.
Ultimately, any focus on security may well end up being to Obama’s advantage. Almost two-thirds of those polled say they are confident that he will be able to handle terrorism effectively.
“President Obama is being incredibly tough on terrorism in the sense that he’s aggressively pursuing terrorists in Pakistan, escalating efforts in Afghanistan, sending more money to Yemen,” said Caroline Wadhams, a national security senior policy analyst for the liberal Center for American Progress. “Brown was raising all these issues, but it was already a priority.”