After weeks of concentrating their attacks against President Barack Obama on the economy, Republicans are branching out. They’re taking aim at his anti-terrorism policy.
"Just what is the administration’s overarching plan to take on the terrorist threat and to keep America safe?" asks House Republican leader John Boehner in a new Web video featuring ominous music, unsettling images and less than flattering photos of the president.
The production by the National Republican Congressional Committee is the latest part of a barrage in which former Vice President Dick Cheney, potential 2012 presidential contenders, GOP lawmakers and others seek to raise doubts about Obama’s early performance as commander in chief.
At times, the criticism is blunt, as when Cheney said Obama’s actions "raise the risk" of another terrorist attack like the one on Sept. 11, 2001.
At other moments, Republicans choose a less confrontational tone, posing uncomfortable questions, as yet unanswered.
Referring to the potential release of detainees now at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, which Obama has pledged to close within a year, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked recently: "Will these trained terrorists be allowed to travel freely anywhere in the United States? What will their status be? Will they be allowed to stay here permanently?"
The robust new line of attack against the president coincides generally with the increased attention Obama has devoted to foreign policy issues in recent weeks.
At the same time, recent internal GOP polling suggests it is an area where Democrats are relatively weak, at least in contrast with domestic matters such as the economy, energy, education and health care.
A poll by New Models, a firm with strong GOP ties, found that voters viewed Republicans and Democrats as equally competent in dealing with the war on terror, while Democrats are heavily favored on numerous domestic issues such as health care, energy and education.
In recent weeks, Republicans have seized on Obama’s handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at an international meeting, his overtures to Cuba and his purported bow to Saudi King Abdullah while in Europe. His decision to close the Guantanamo prison has now been joined by a decision to ban torture by U.S. interrogators and the release of formerly classified memos detailing the Bush administration’s legal justification for waterboarding.
At a news conference last week, Obama signaled that he understood the stakes. Responding to a question about his decision to release the memos, he said, "Ultimately I will be judged as commander in chief on how safe I’m keeping the American people."
Other times, Obama has been dismissive of his critics.
He was still out of the country, in Trinidad, when Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said it was "irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez," the anti-American president of Venezuela.
Obama noted that Venezuela has a defense budget about one-600th the size of the United States’ and owns the oil company Citgo. "It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States," he said.
Republicans have had their moments, though.
On Monday, House Democrats unveiled a spending bill that pointedly omitted funds to close down the Guantanamo facility, a measure of the concern it has spread.
They also were aided by the disclosure last month that Dennis Blair, the administration’s director of national intelligence, told employees in a private memo that useful information had been obtained about al-Qaida during interrogations where waterboarding had been used.
Blair hastily issued a public statement saying it was not possible to know whether the same material could have been gained by other, less harsh means. Obama used the same response at his news conference a few days later, adding, "It doesn’t answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?"
Boehner recently challenged the president in a White House meeting to release memos that are said to evaluate the benefit of waterboarding in obtaining information. The president declined to make a commitment.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and potential 2012 presidential candidate, has been among the most pointed of Obama’s critics.
In late April, Gingrich likened the chief executive to former President Jimmy Carter, who was in office in the late 1970s when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and when militants took hostages at the U.S. embassy in Iran.
"Carter tried weakness and the world got tougher and tougher because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators, when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead," Gingrich said on Fox.
"What I find distressing," he said, "is that the administration opposes opening up oil exploration," but yet Obama has "bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia" and now reached out to Chavez, whom Gingrich said has been conducting "a vicious anti-American campaign." The White House denies that Obama bowed to the king.
Porter Goss, a former Republican congressman from Florida as well as CIA director under President George W. Bush, was, if anything, tougher on the release of the memos.
"Trading security for partisan political popularity will ensure that our secrets are not secret and that our intelligence is destined to fail us," Goss said.