It was an unusual showdown pitting present and former leaders, live on national television, with President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney dueling in back-to-back speeches Thursday over how to best protect the nation against terrorism.
Obama pressed his case for closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and for discarding interrogation techniques he described as brutal, while Cheney warned that doing so would endanger the country.
But 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 doctrine that would upend that view and cement his credentials -- and those of his party -- as a defender of the country’s security, even as he takes a more moderate course on civil liberties.
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.
Obama, seeking to portray himself as the caretaker of the country’s fundamental values, chose as his backdrop the grand rotunda of the National Archives, mausoleum-like home to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Cheney weighed in from a friendly site across town, the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that has been a nerve center for conservative thinking.
For both men, the challenges 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 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, in which he conceded that his policies were 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 had accepted some of the Bush administration’s detention policies, such as the system of military commissions that tries many of the detainees 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 were “not absolutist.”
But Cheney, who gained equal-time treatment through national cable TV outlets, appeared content to be portrayed that way, at least on an issue that he argued afforded 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.
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 are not yet ready to say they wholeheartedly trust Democrats over Republicans when it comes to those issues.
Still, Republicans plotting strategy for next year’s midterm elections and beyond are being forced to grapple with a changed political landscape on national security.
During a breakfast session with reporters Thursday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the GOP’s Senate campaign panel, seemed to throw up his hands when asked how the party would campaign against an Obama-led Democratic Party on national security.
Cornyn complimented Obama’s decisions to send additional troops to Afghanistan and to keep forces in Iraq, and praised his decision not to release photos of harsh interrogations. And suggesting that Republicans might prefer to talk about fiscal matters such as rising deficits, Cornyn predicted that next year’s elections were “likely to be about spending and borrowing.”
Obama’s 2008 Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 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 Obama for distancing himself from his party’s left wing on most national security issues, saying the president had “positioned himself as a centrist.”
A new survey by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg shows that the parties are essentially tied when voters are asked which one would do a “better job” fighting terrorism, and that the GOP has a slight edge when voters are asked about national security.
The pro-Republican gap is wider among independents, a key target group for Obama and other Democrats.
Adding to the pressure on Obama to remain centrist, rather than hewing to the demands of his liberal base, is that Americans by and large support aggressive efforts to curb terrorism.
Polls show divisions over the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, while many support the use of torture if it is deemed useful.
“The center of the country on these issues is to the right of the Democratic Party,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
With Obama seen as harder to pin down, some Republicans in recent days have focused on an easier target: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
Pelosi has been far more combative than the president. Unlike Obama, she favors a commission to investigate the Bush administration, and she plunged into controversy with her accusation last week that the CIA lied about waterboarding in a 2002 briefing she attended.
Obama made clear that he would try to float above disputes over who knew what. The president, after all, did not arrive in Washington for more than three years after the 2001 attacks, and was not forced to take votes as a senator during what he termed Thursday the “season of fear” in which “Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists and citizens” fell silent as the country “went off course.”
But Obama is left to advocate his developing doctrine of flexibility while Cheney and other Republicans, warning actively of another attack, insist on implacability as they try to win back their old advantage.