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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The raid in Libya and a second U.S. commando operation in Somalia come at a time when President Obama badly needs something to go his way. His approval rating is at its lowest level in years, and he is grounded here in Washington, D.C., in a staring match with Republicans.

Enter counterterrorism, an unusual arena in which President Obama can decide on a course of action and execute it. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The American system of government was built on gridlock. Yet even by that standard, this past week has demonstrated new levels of immobility. So the Special Forces operations in Libya and Somalia over the weekend were a bracing change. The president decided to do something and it happened. Ben Rhodes is a deputy national security adviser at the White House.

BEN RHODES: This is an area where the president is the decision-maker. He's the one who ultimately has to direct our foreign policy, including our counterterrorism efforts.

SHAPIRO: Being the decision-maker must be refreshing for President Obama after a year of aborted missions at home. His immigration bill and his gun control law both failed in Congress. The shutdown has incapacitated much of the federal government. And internationally things have been frustrating too. Ambassador Rich Williamson held several national security positions in Republican administrations.

RICH WILLIAMSON: Well, the president's international standing has been diminished enormously, particularly because of the kerfuffle, the confusion, the contradictions in his Syrian policy throughout September.

SHAPIRO: And then as October dawned, the White House cancelled this week's trip to Asia, leaving Secretary of State John Kerry to attend important trade summits in the president's place. Ivo Daalder directs the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and was ambassador to NATO during Obama's first term.

IVO DAALDER: When you have two major meetings, as are occurring this week, and the president can't show up because of the domestic problems here at home, that has an impact.

SHAPIRO: American allies and adversaries may start to wonder if the president and the United States are weak, frozen in place. With that backdrop, the raids in Libya and Somalia start to look like an important boost for Obama, says Daalder.

DAALDER: It was good to be able to show that not everything has come to a screeching halt. But it would be far better and far preferable if we can demonstrate the broad range of our power.

SHAPIRO: In another change from the norm, these weekend raids received praise from people in both parties. House Speaker John Boehner was on ABC yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS")

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I'm very confident that both of these efforts were successful. I'm going to congratulate all of those in the U.S. intelligence operations, our troops, FBI - all those who were involved.

SHAPIRO: There is a twist to this story. President Obama has a lot of power to carry out counterterrorism missions as he sees fit. Yet in these operations in Libya and Somalia, he held back on some of that power. Ben Rhodes at the White House notes that Obama did not just order unmanned drones to strike the targets.

RHODES: Both of these operations were capture operations. And again, I think it demonstrates that our counterterrorism policy is not simply one dominated by drones, but there's also other elements to it.

SHAPIRO: And what's more, Obama wants Congress to take back some of his broad counterterrorism power. The power mostly comes from one law letting the president go after terrorists anywhere in the world without congressional approval. In a speech last spring, Obama said he wants to work with Congress to refine and ultimately repeal that law. Back then he was more optimistic about his chances of working with Congress on anything. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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