Failed Nigerian airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got a US visa, wasn't on Homeland Security's no-fly list, and got only the briefest notation on its terrorist suspect watch list even after his father warned the US that he was a threat. Abdulmutallab is suspected of having some connection to a Yemen based al Qaeda faction. It didn't take long for anti-terrorism hawks from Joe Lieberman to GOP congresspersons to dump the lax security, terrorist watch breach, and faulty al Qaeda intelligence on President Obama. They blasted Obama for shutting them out of intelligence briefings and for ignoring their inquiries for information on intelligence operations. This was also a ramp up to their main knock that Obama courts folly if he moves ahead with his plan to close Gitmo, and worse, transfer some of the prisoners to Yemen.
The out in space partisan hit on Obama for the security breach and the Gitmo shutdown was predictable. The soft on terrorism charge has dogged Obama from the early days of the presidential campaign to the White House. But he's not alone. The charge has been a political albatross for other moderate Democrats. During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry tried to do an impossible political somersault and out-Bush Bush on terrorism.
Kerry pledged to launch preemptive strikes against terrorists wherever they were and said that he would launch search and destroy missions to ferret out bin Laden and al Qaeda. The foolhardy pledge fooled absolutely no one. Countless polls showed that the voters repeatedly gave Bush huge percentage margins over Kerry when asked who they thought would do a better job in the anti-terror war. Kerry still didn't get it. He kept pounding on Bush as weak and ineffective in fighting terrorism. He touted his military credentials as a Vietnam combat vet to supposedly prove that he would and could be every bit if not more the hardliner on terrorism than Bush.
If Kerry had looked at the polls much closer he would have seen what it really took to beat Bush. Those same polls that consistently showed that if the election came down solely to a referendum on who best to fight terrorism he'd lose, and he did.
Obama tried the same tack during the 2008 campaign. He promised preemptive strikes, to escalate the Afghan war, pump massive funds into counterinsurgency campaigns, to keep Bush's patently illegal anti-terrorism spy, surveillance and wiretapping snooping on Americans largely intact. This didn't budge the polls one point upward in his favor in a head to head match with McCain on the terrorism issue. Voters by big majorities still said that if it came down to waging the tough fight against terrorism, McCain, not Obama was the right man for the job.
Mercifully for Obama, the election didn't come to that issue. 2008 was not 2004. Bush and the GOP's wreck and ruin of the economy, its sex and corruption scandals, foreign policy bungles, a perceived failed war, and the passage of time, made the terrorism scare a bottom rung political issue in the election.
Abdulmutallab's thankfully bungled terror try won't change that. Hints that the White House has done a less than stellar job in the anti-terrorism war won't change that either. This won't stop the GOP, though, from playing soft on terror card against Obama every chance it gets. In this case, it was played to hammer him for planning to close Gitmo. Obama will eventually close Gitmo. And that insures that the terrorism card will stay on the president's table.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, "How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge" (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.