WASHINGTON (Reuters) - National security has jumped to the top of U.S. President Barack Obama’s agenda, but it is unlikely to distract him from overhauling healthcare and tackling double-digit unemployment over the long term.
Obama spent his first two days back in Washington after his Hawaiian vacation looking at how U.S. intelligence agencies failed to connect the dots and prevent the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.
“It’s an immediate distraction. It has got to be dealt with instantly, but I don’t think it is something that need be lingering,” said presidential scholar Stephen Hess who served in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.
The White House has dismissed suggestions that the political fallout from the failed bomb plot has overloaded Obama’s already full plate, which is groaning under the weight of crises ranging from a record budget deficit and high unemployment to a stand-off with Iran.
“When you’re the president of the United States, you’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” declared deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton.
Underscoring that daily juggling act, Obama held talks with congressional leaders on Tuesday to discuss the healthcare overhaul bill after meeting his spy chiefs and rebuking them for the Christmas Day “screw-up.”
Despite Republican attempts to paint Obama, a Democrat, as weak on security for waiting three days before making a public statement on the attack, analysts said he appeared to be weathering the controversy thus far.
He acted swiftly to order a review of how information is shared between the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and how the no-fly lists that stop people boarding planes are drawn up.
“People have moved on. The attack was thwarted, no one was hurt, the individual was arrested,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at Brookings Institution in Washington.
Opinion polls consistently show the number one priority for most Americans is still the fragile state of the economy. Obama has repeatedly said his top job in 2010 will be to put Americans back to work after the worst recession in decades.
The president’s fellow Democrats, who control both houses of the U.S. Congress, face tough mid-term elections in November, when Republicans will focus on the high unemployment rate and exploit voters’ uncertainty about the high cost of Obama’s plans to revamp the $2.5 trillion healthcare system.
So, expect to see Obama hitting the road in the next few weeks to sell his ambitious healthcare reforms and his plans for spurring job growth.
But analysts say the president, who receives a daily intelligence briefing on threats to the United States, is also going to have to be more visible on national security issues.
A poll conducted by Rasmussen after the Christmas Day attack found 79 percent of U.S. voters think there will be another terrorist attack in the United States this year.
“He is going to have to talk more about national security to reassure people he is on top of the problem. There very well could be future attacks and he has to inoculate himself from potential risks in that area,” said Brookings’ West.
“Had the (Christmas Day) attack been successful or if there is a new attack in the future, then the whole political terrain shifts enormously and that is the risk he faces,” West said.
Peter Feaver, a former director at the National Security Council, said the administration is acutely aware of this.
“The White House is as concerned about making sure they are prepared for the next attack as they are dealing with what went wrong in the last attack,” said Feaver, now a political scientist at Duke University in North Carolina.
“If you don’t wake up after a wake up call then you’re in much, much more political peril. I’m not saying they haven’t woken up, I’m saying they will pay attention to this.”
National security loomed large on Obama’s agenda in his first year in office as he weighed sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan. But in seeking to make a sharp break from the Bush administration, the “war on terror” disappeared from the government lexicon.
“They’ve been low-balling it. They’re consciously rejecting the more hyperbolic approach the Bush administration had,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re doing a good job (on national security), but they need to be more vocal about it.
“The Democrats have upcoming elections and a spate of unpopular issues that could put them at a disadvantage. If they aren’t seen as responding effectively to terrorism, it will hurt them at the polls,” he said.
Americans traditionally view Republicans as stronger on national security and are still uncertain about Obama as their commander in chief.
Therein lies a potential problem for Obama. The more he talks about national security to counter that perception, the less room he has to talk about health care and jobs.
So, the question is not whether Obama can chew gum and walk at the same time but whether he can also keep those spinning plates he is juggling from crashing to the ground.
Editing by Todd Eastham