WASHINGTON – It was an unusual showdown pitting present and former leaders, live on national television, with President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney dueling in back-to-back speeches Thursday over how to best protect the United States against terrorism.
Obama pressed his case for closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and for discarding interrogation techniques he described as brutal, while Cheney warned that doing so would endanger the country.
But even beyond the discord over those issues, the clash represented the latest round in a larger and fast-changing fight for the public’s confidence on national security.
Americans for decades have seen the Republican Party as more trustworthy when it comes to waging war and keeping the country safe. But after sweeping the GOP into the minority in 2008, Obama is trying to forge a new doctrine that would upend that view and cement his credentials – and those of his party – as a defender of the country’s security. For their part, Cheney and the Republicans are seeking to preserve their legacy by holding to a hard line on security, and decrying many of the new president’s decisions as “reckless.”
For both men, the challenges Thursday were evident.
Cheney relished his role as a defender of the George W. Bush era, but with an approval rating that is barely more than half of Obama’s, he is a handicapped messenger.
Obama enjoys broad popularity, even on the national security issues that have long vexed his party. But his lengthy address Thursday, in which he conceded that his policies are still evolving, laid out a mixed approach that could be portrayed as squishy.
He defended actions that have angered conservatives, such as ordering the closure of Guantanamo Bay. But he also had to explain to frustrated liberals why he has accepted some of the Bush administration’s detention policies, such as the system of military commissions that tries many of the detainees who were captured in battle. He chided conservatives for an “anything goes” mentality on fighting terrorism, as well as liberals, who “make little allowance” for the hard realities of terrorism.
“Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right,” Obama said, insisting Americans are “not absolutist.”
But Cheney, who gained equal-time treatment by national cable TV outlets, appeared happy to be portrayed that way, at least on an issue that he argued affords none of the middle ground Obama has sought.
“Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy,” Cheney said. “When just a single clue that goes unlearned, or one lead that goes unpursued, can bring on catastrophe, it is no time for splitting differences.”
New polling underscores the perils for both parties in finding the right approach on security issues.
Democrats are more competitive than they have been in decades when voters are asked which party they trust on national security, and Obama enjoys broad approval for his leadership on national security matters. But Americans by and large support aggressive efforts to curb terrorism. Most independents believe that torture is at least “sometimes justified,” according to one survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
“The center of the country on these issues is to the right of the Democratic Party,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center.
Moreover, despite winning Congress in 2006 and the White House last year, Democrats can attribute their success more to GOP scandals and the economic collapse than to any advantage on security issues.
Obama’s 2008 Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an advocate of closing Guantanamo and a critic of harsh interrogation methods, criticized the White House for what he said was a lack of specificity on detainee plans.
But McCain credited the president for distancing himself from his party’s left wing on most national security issues.
“He has positioned himself as a centrist,” McCain said, citing Obama’s decision to keep Robert M. Gates as defense secretary and to ramp up military operations in Afghanistan. “Up until now, he has done a pretty good job.”
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