Administration Faces Counterterrorism Questions

President Obama begins the year facing some of the same issues as a year ago. There's the economy, health care and among others: terrorism. How much trouble does the administration face over the attempted bombing of an airplane over Christmas day? Republicans have criticized the administration's handling of the attempted bombing.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand, sitting in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

President Obama begins the year facing some of the same issues as a year ago. There is the economy, health care and terrorism, among other things.

BRAND: So he faces some of the same issues, but the political atmosphere has changed. One year ago, the president's inauguration was cast as a moment of hope and possibly new politics. Today, the president faces tough battles in Congress and over terrorism.

INSKEEP: Let's get some perspective on all this with NPR's Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays. Cokie, Happy New Year.

COKIE ROBERTS: Same to you Steve. Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: In another year, another decade, in fact. How much trouble does the administration face over the attempted bombing of an airplane on Christmas Day?

ROBERTS: Well, there is a certain amount piling on going here - mainly, of course, from Republicans - questioning everything from the administration's intelligence sources to the decision to try the alleged terrorist in a civilian court, and in going back to the decision to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. So, there is a lot that the administration is dealing with here, and they got off to a shaky start in dealing with it, with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano saying that the system had worked.

So yesterday, the administration put the counterterrorism chief, longtime CIA veteran John Brennan, as the spokesperson on this issue, out front. And Brennan says, look, this is not like the situation before September 11th. People did share intelligence. They just found no smoking gun to stop the alleged terrorist from trying to blow up a plane. Now, that's not terribly reassuring, even to administration supporters. There was action taken yesterday, in closing the embassy in Yemen. But members of both parties are asking now, publicly, whether Yemenis should be released from Guantanamo, as many were in the Bush administration and continued in the Obama administration. But it all gets mushed up, Steve, into not one terribly clear story where the president has to fend off attacks of being soft on terrorism.

INSKEEP: And you mentioned Yemen because this Nigerian suspect had a trip to Yemen in his past. There were other seeming warning signs before he boarded a plane and was stopped - really just by incompetence and by the passengers. Is this mainly a political problem for the president, or could this lead to changes in policy?

ROBERTS: Well, it's always politically difficult for Democrats when they are dealing with an issue like terrorism. It remained the Republican's only winning issue through most of President Bush's second term, and it's a particular problem for a Democrat who hasn't served in the military. But the policy problem is that it takes up a great deal of the administration's time, and will from here on out - particularly when the Senate Intelligence Committee starts hearings in a couple of weeks.

The president's advisers say look, they've already been spending a great deal of time dealing with the issue, that's they haven't taken their eye off the terrorist ball; it's the reason for the build-up in Afghanistan. But they don't want to talk about Afghanistan too much because that's a political problem for the president. And now they have to deal with the political fallout from this terrorist attempt when what they really want to talk about is successes on the home front.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk, very briefly, about the home front, because the White House has managed to get a health-care bill through the House and Senate - not quite the same bill, though. Are they likely to agree on something in the next few weeks?

ROBERTS: I think they will. You know, a conference committee has an air of inevitability a lot of the time, and the Democrats know the president really needs them now. They have to believe in the long run this health-care bill will work for them. The problem is it's an election year, the voters are sour, this terrorism is likely to make them more sour, making them feel like the country is not headed in the right direction. And they really want to get to the issue that voters really care about, which is jobs, jobs, jobs. The president would love to have the luxury of talking about nothing else but that. But he doesn't have that.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. An analysis this Monday morning from NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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