POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, May 03, 2012
WASHINGTON >> One moment he boasts about taking out America’s No. 1 enemy, and the next he vows to bring home troops from an unpopular war. For President Barack Obama, the days leading up to his re-election kickoff have been spent straddling the precarious line between hawk and dove, and possibly redefining his party for years to come.
For four decades, Democrats have been confounded by a deeply ingrained soft-on-security image that has hurt them at the ballot box. But in a country now tired of war yet still seeking to project strength, Obama is trying to reposition his party on national security, much as Bill Clinton did on economic and domestic policy in the 1990s, triangulating between two poles.
The blend, captured by an unannounced trip to Afghanistan on Tuesday that ended in a nationally televised address, has annoyed critics on both left and right. Many in his party’s liberal base have grown disenchanted with Obama for tripling troop levels in Afghanistan, carrying over many of President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies and in some ways even expanding them.
Many conservatives, on the other hand, argue that behind the raid that killed Osama bin Laden lies a fundamentally weak approach to rivals and rogue states like Iran, North Korea and Russia.
If it seems to some like the doctrine of having it both ways, it has scored well with a broad cross-section of the country as measured by polls and focus groups. And Obama’s advisers have made clear in recent days that they believe he can play offense on national security as no other Democratic presidential candidate has since the Vietnam War.
“The post-9/11 paradigm that existed for several years where you were either all in with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or you were not sufficiently hawkish, I think no longer applies,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to the president. “He’s demonstrated that you can end those wars while actually more effectively targeting our enemy.”
Republicans see it as more calculation than conviction, more about winning an election than making America safe.
“He’s in an odd position, sort of betwixt and between, and he can’t really figure out which way he wants to go,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee and chairman of his party’s Senate campaign committee.
Cornyn noted that Obama denounced the tough interrogation techniques used under Bush as torture but has evinced no hesitation about killing suspected terrorists — even a U.S. citizen — from the skies overseas using drones.
“It looks kind of superficial to me,” he said, “and looks expedient.”
Obama has long expressed a complicated view of national security that did not neatly fit into old boxes, but it was initially obscured by his strong opposition to the Iraq war. As a candidate in 2007 and 2008, he cited that stance as his central argument against his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Less widely noticed was his attempt to balance that with vows to send more troops to Afghanistan and unilaterally strike inside Pakistan if necessary to capture or kill Bin Laden. At the time, many analysts thought those positions were more about avoiding the historic trap that past anti-war Democrats had fallen into. But four years later, Obama has presided over a national security policy that has married elements of both parties.
“What you’re seeing is carrying out a very well thought-out and very effective foreign policy — more than anything it’s pragmatic and practical,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “He has done exactly what he said he was going to do.”
A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last month showed that Obama had neutralized the traditional Republican advantage on national security. Fifty-nine percent expressed confidence in Obama’s ability to be an effective commander in chief, slightly more than the 56 percent who had confidence in that area Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and the putative Republican nominee.
“I think it has worked politically, but it is the type of thing that stops working the day after the election,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor who worked on Bush’s national security staff. “If the policies are unwise, and I think they are at least fraught if not unwise, then those chickens come home to roost eventually.”
Politically, at least, Republicans in recent days struggled to come up with an effective counterpunch. They complained that Obama was politicizing national security when his campaign released a video last week hailing the Bin Laden raid. But if the video struck some as unseemly, including some in the White House who worried it was undignified, it kept the conversation focused for days on what the Obama team wanted to focus on.
As late as Tuesday night, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Fox News that Obama’s order launching the raid was not “a tough decision,” and that it would “just be dumbfounding” to decide otherwise. Democrats on Wednesday gleefully circulated a newspaper article reporting that Rumsfeld once pulled the plug on a raid to go after a possible bin Laden hide-out.
After initially saying that Obama was exploiting the raid, Romney and other Republicans pivoted by Wednesday to a more measured reaction to the president’s trip to Afghanistan. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, told a home-state radio station that “the only qualms I have about anything the president said is emphasizing to our enemies exactly what our next military move is, or the lack of a military move.” Obama, he said, is “misleading the American people” if he leaves the impression that the war on terrorism is over.
Obama, who campaigned on Sunday with Bill Clinton, seems to be following his Democratic predecessor’s playbook. After a generation of Democrats alienating voters with liberal domestic positions, Clinton moved the party toward the center on issues like trade, welfare and deficit spending.
Recent focus groups conducted by Third Way, a Democratic group dedicated to that shift, found some success for Obama in doing the same for national security.
“His brand on security has been very, very strong, and there’s no doubt that has been a radical shift in the way people think about Democratic presidents,” said Matt Bennett, the group’s senior vice president.
But it was limited to Obama. When it came to Democrats generally, Bennett said, “We heard the same thing we heard in ’08: They’re weak, indecisive, afraid to use force. It just isn’t enough to completely change the brand. I think he’s done everything he can possibly do. It’s not his fault. It’s just it can’t be fixed in one term.”B B