President Obama on Monday exchanged the warm shorelines of Hawaii for an exceptionally frigid and tense Washington where a botched Christmas Day terrorist attack puts pressure on an administration already spread thin on domestic priorities.
All eyes are on Mr. Obama as he deals with the fallout over the plot and how he will square the new pressures to address the incident where authorities say a passenger on a Detroit-bound international flight tried to detonate a bomb, with the president’s long-standing goal of moving past the Bush administration’s war on terror.
“When you’re president of the United States, you’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday, listing jobs, the economy, health care and financial regulatory reform as items among Mr. Obama’s to-do list. “But then also along with what’s happening on these counterterrorism measures and Yemen, we’ve also got issues to deal with with Iran and North Korea and Pakistan.”
Republicans say with all that gum-chewing, Mr. Obama’s walking is bound to be affected.
“He’s going to be expected to juggle flaming torches,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said. “Each is a large policy goal that he’s promised to get done and if he drops just one of those it will be largely noticed, there will be some disappointment, but he’s almost going to be forced to do so.”
The president went into 2009 hoping to force congressional action on health care, global warming and regulating Wall Street. Those items languished as high unemployment and ballooning spending tied his hands, and the Christmas incident adds yet another complication.
Initially, the administration said it properly handled the thwarted attack but in the days since backed off that claim, with Mr. Obama demanding a thorough review of where security lapses occurred, particularly on information-sharing.
On Monday, the government tightened airline security measures under which all passengers could be subject to a random search while every passenger flying through or from 14 specified countries will face both a pat-down and a luggage search.
The Transportation Security Administration ordered 150 additional body-scanning machines in early 2009, and there is talk of pursuing more.
The Obama administration’s terror-fighting policies are going to face congressional scrutiny, with some hearings scheduled and more bound to come.
Several Democrats already have joined Republicans in calling for a review of how the nation handles releasing detainees from Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. At least two former detainees have claimed a role in planning the failed Christmas attack.
Closing Guantanamo was one of Mr. Obama’s first priorities, and while the administration has said the incident does not alter its plans to do so, it’s unclear when that will happen. That promise, along with getting rid of harsh interrogation techniques, has been key to Mr. Obama’s efforts to differentiate himself from President Bush.
“Last year, they tried to show how they were different [from the Bush administration] but actually Americans are really going to want to see how they’re the same because if Bush kept us safe, Obama better keep us safe as well,” Mr. Bonjean said.
Sean Gibbons, a spokesman for the progressive think tank Third Way, said it’s possible for Mr. Obama to take a strong position on terrorism without re-implementing Bush policies.
“The Bush administration did an extraordinary job of being tough, I’m not entirely sure they were always smart,” Mr. Gibbons said. “Tough and smart is a better approach.”