Low Tidings: A New Year, and New (Old) Politics of Terrorism

By Rick Klein

At least we’re not talking about health care anymore -- or Iraq, or even Afghanistan, for that matter.

It’s a new (old) issue in a new (old) place greeting us this new year: It’s terrorism, the front is Yemen, and it’s pushed all other political noise to the background for the moment.

As President Obama arrives back in Washington Monday morning, after a vacation clipped a bit short on either end, he’s getting a glimpse of what life is going to be like for him in 2010.

The politics are unpredictable -- but should we really be surprised that they’re also unavoidable?

Yes, the thwarted bombing attempt became hyper-politicized extremely fast -- but this is an even-numbered year, following an unusually partisan odd-numbered year. Few things will happen of consequence that don’t have the taint of politics.

A return to Washington brings together administration task forces, congressional hearings, and a rested press corps -- all for a debate we’ve never really stopped having.

The agenda changed just a bit for the president since last he was in Washington:

“In many ways, President Obama is returning to a whole new world,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America” Monday. “The White House is aggressively pushing back on this notion that President Obama is not aggressively fighting the war on al Qaeda, arguing that this White House has spent more attention and resources devoted to fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen than the previous one.”

The big picture -- Peter Baker, in a New York Times magazine piece publishing later this month: “The attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines passenger jet on Christmas Day heightened a debate that has percolated over the last 12 months. Obama’s approach has been either a dangerous reversal of the Bush years or a consolidation of the Bush years, depending on who is talking.”

“In fact, the new president, during his first year, has adopted the bulk of the counterterrorism strategy he found on his desk when he arrived in the Oval Office, a strategy already moderated from the earliest days after Sept. 11, 2001. He did, however, shave back some of the harsher edges of the remaining Bush policies and in the process of his recalibrations drew simultaneous fire from former Vice President Dick Cheney and the American Civil Liberties Union.”

“Obama, then, found himself in a place where he seems most comfortable, splitting the difference on a tough issue and presenting it as the course of reasoned judgment rather than of dogmatic ideology.” What Democrats (and Republicans) know about what can be predicted, amid the unpredictable: “Crisis: Obama will face one, most likely international; perhaps soon with the al-Qaeda presence in Yemen. How he handles it will affect his party’s performance in November. ... If a major crisis occurs and the president rises to the occasion, it will lift other Democrats,” Bloomberg’s Al Hunt writes in his column.

Too political, too fast? “Only [former Vice President Dick] Cheney looks at a near tragedy on Christmas and sees opportunity. When he does, he doesn't just sound like some old crank in the park. He sounds like a bum,” Mike Lupica writes for the New York Daily News. “But then partisan attacks like this are the real national pastime now in American politics, why we seem unable to get out of our own way even on the big things, why the constant war of words between the left and the right can somehow trivialize the most crucial issues of a world that becomes less safe by the day.”

In the short-term -- political fallout: “Nine days after the failed bombing, Democrats and Republicans continued to stake out their political territory on terrorism, with each side keeping an eye on the midterm elections later this year,” Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times. “Republicans charged that Mr. Obama has given national security short shrift as he has focused on domestic issues.”

“There’s no question that the president downplayed the risk of terrorism since he took office,” Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said on CNN.

The administration’s talking point: “Al Qaeda has several hundred members in Yemen, and they've grown in strength,” John Brennan, President Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, told Terry Moran on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. “From the very first day of this administration we've been focused on Yemen.”

With the US and Britain (and now Japan and France as well) closing their embassies in Yemen: “American military and intelligence officials said they first picked up warnings of imminent attacks about three weeks ago, using information obtained from enhanced intelligence-sharing established with Yemen last year,” David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt report in The New York Times. “The information pointed to four suicide bombers headed to Sana, the Yemeni capital, to attack Western targets, possibly the American and British Embassies. Military strikes thwarted those attacks, the officials say.”

ABC’s Martha Raddatz, reporting from Yemen on “GMA” Monday: “US embassy officials will decide on a daily basis whether or not to re-open. Even if they do, the threat level will remain high.”

“The embassy shut-down also highlighted questions over whether Obama -- or his Republican predecessor George W. Bush -- focused enough attention on the troubled nation that is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden,” Poli tico’s Harry Siegel reports . “Shutting an embassy is a rare and dire step, dramatizing the Arab nation's emerging position as one of the world's premier terrorist havens.”

Coming to a head -- maybe quickly: “The Yemeni government ordered an ‘unprecedented’ number of troops into a region controlled by a branch of al Qaeda, The Wall Street Journal’s Yochi J. Dreazen reports. “The Obama administration increased the pressure on Islamic militants in Yemen Sunday after the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda claimed responsibility for plotting the failed attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day. The White House's top counterterrorism official didn't rule out U.S. military action.”

New rules on airlines, on flights originating from a range of less stable nations, go into effect Monday: “In the wake of the attempted terrorist bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas Day, the Transportation Security Administration today announced extra security directives to combat threats of terrorist attack,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports.

Latest piece of the debate: “President Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser on Sunday defended the administration's decision to try in federal court the man charged with attempting to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day and indicated that he would be offered a plea agreement to persuade him to reveal what he knows about al-Qaeda operations in Yemen,” Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., in the middle of everything, again: The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said on “This Week” that it was a “very serious mistake” to send Abdulmutallab to federal court.

“He was trained, equipped and directed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Lieberman said on ABC. “That was an act of war. He should be treated as a prisoner of war, held in a military brig, questioned now, and should have been ever since apprehended for intelligence that could help us stop the next attack or get people in Yemen.”

Also on national security -- is this a matter of trust? “President Obama's ambitious plan to begin phasing out nuclear weapons has run up against powerful resistance from officials in the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies, posing a threat to one of his most important foreign policy initiatives,” the Los Angeles Times’ Paul Richter reports. “Obama laid out his vision of a nuclear-free world in a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, last April, pledging that the U.S. would take dramatic steps to lead the way. Nine months later, the administration is locked in internal debate over a top-secret policy blueprint for shrinking the U.S. nuclear arsenal and reducing the role of such weapons in America's military strategy and foreign policy.”

Can you return to that which you never really left behind? “As Obama heads back to Washington, lawmakers from the House and Senate must resolve their differing versions of a health care overhaul that is squeaking toward passage,” the AP’s Philip Elliott writes. “Financial regulations are on the verge of winning their own version of an overhaul. A State of the Union address to Congress is due during the first weeks of 2010. The escalating war in Afghanistan is not going to run itself and the intelligence community is not going to reorganize without a direct hand from the Oval Office.”

On health care -- mapping a fast track? There won’t be a full conference committee, The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn reports: “According to a pair of senior Capitol Hill staffers, one from each chamber, House and Senate Democrats are ‘almost certain’ to negotiate informally rather than convene a formal conference committee. Doing so would allow Democrats to avoid a series of procedural steps--not least among them, a series of special motions in the Senate, each requiring a vote with full debate -- that Republicans could use to stall deliberations, just as they did in November and December.”

Some speed bumps -- combing through the perks: “The construction industry provision is receiving a second look as work begins in earnest this week to resolve differences in bills passed by the Senate and the House to remake the nation’s health care system,” Robert Pear reports in The New York Times. “Other provisions sure to be scrutinized include a tax break for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan in Nebraska; Medicare coverage for residents of Libby, Mont., sickened by a mineral mine; extra Medicaid money for Massachusetts, Nebraska and Vermont; and a special dispensation for a handful of doctor-owned hospitals.”

The handicapping: “Senate Democrats will have the upper hand as U.S. lawmakers return to Washington this month to confront the last major hurdle in the effort to overhaul the nation’s health-care system,” Bloomberg’s Kristin Jensen and Nicole Gaouette report. “Senate Democrats have more clout because they have no room for defections, analysts and lawmakers said. Even so, House members will push for their provisions, including the public insurance program, likely making the negotiations among the most complex in congressional history.”

Now that we’re in 2010 -- time to write some playbooks: “Democrats will almost certainly lose House and Senate seats,” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his column. But they can escape a rout if they avoid going around in circles by constantly wondering if they should tack left or right. Steadiness in governing, a bit of tactical shrewdness and a little help from the Republicans may be enough to save them from the abyss.”

What to sell: “To rally their own voters -- most notably, the left-leaning independents who have been disenchanted by the long legislative slog, and the liberals who naively believe that imperfect reform is a good reason for staying home -- Democratic messengers will need to affirmatively sell the health-care overhaul,” Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The Democratic opportunity is obvious. Highlight the positive (and broadly popular) aspects of health reform, and paint the Republicans as obstructionists standing in the way.”

Hard for the left to swallow? “Are Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress doing enough? No. But they are doing what’s possible. That may be pathetic, but it’s no fallacy,” The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg writes.

David Corn, at Politics Daily: “As Obama handles a variety of complex matters -- some with no easy answers -- he will not whip up enthusiasm for his party by playing it cool, as he navigates the nuances of this or that policy dispute. And disappointment is not very empowering.”

A profile you’ll read again (and again) as November draws near (ask Rahm how important recruiting is in mid-terms): “With visions of a Republican majority dancing in his head, California U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy is driving the back roads of America these days, looking for fresh faces to represent his party in 2010,” McClatchy’s Rob Hotakainen reports. “After watching his party get slaughtered in the last two elections, McCarthy is feeling optimistic about its chances of a comeback in 2010. Voters increasingly are becoming disenfranchised with the Democratic majority in Washington, he said.”

Shaping the narrative in the other direction: “Rep. Henry Brown, a five-term South Carolina Republican from a conservative-leaning district, has told associates he will his announce his retirement Monday,” Politico’s Jonathan Martin reports. “He will be making his announcement at a press conference tomorrow afternoon back in his coastal Carolina district.”

Missing Linc, in Rhode Island? Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, now an independent after losing his 2006 election as a Republican, is set to announce his gubernatorial bid Monday.

In advance of that: “Former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee has once again dipped into his personal fortune to feed his campaign,” Katherine Gregg reports in the Providence Journal. “In the closing days of the quarter that ended Thursday, Chafee loaned his campaign $200,000 on top of $110,000 in earlier personal loans to the ‘exploratory campaign’ he launched last April.”

In Massachusetts -- national flavor in advance of the Jan. 19 special election for the Ted Kennedy seat: “State Senator Scott Brown yesterday trumpeted an endorsement from Republican heavyweight John McCain, the former presidential candidate, while Attorney General Martha Coakley raided Brown’s Senate district for endorsements from local officials, as the two sparred in their campaign for a US Senate seat,” The Boston Globe’s Matt Carroll writes.

The Kicker:

“We’re not going to match her crowd size or sales. These are two different people with different ways of expressing themselves.” -- Eric Fehrnstrom, spokesman for former Gov. Mitt Romney, downplaying comparisons between Romney’s forthcoming book and Sarah Palin’s.

“Let's stay! ... Are we all in? I'm trying to mount a coup here!” -- First Lady Michelle Obama, rallying White House staff and traveling press to stay a bit longer in Hawaii.

For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day: http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenote/

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