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White House to security critics: We are tough, just like Bush

As Republicans continue their unrelenting criticism of the Obama administration's national security measures, the White House points out similarities to the Bush era. But that raises Democrats' hackles.

By Staff writer / February 15, 2010

Response: Obama met with his security team Jan. 5 after the Christmas Day bombing attempt of an airliner. The administration, critics say, mishandled the interrogation of suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Pete Souza/White House/AP

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Washington

It’s midterm election season, and Republicans are reviving a tried campaign mantra: that Democrats are weak on national security, especially terrorism.

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Historically, Democrats start out at a disadvantage on this issue.

But outcries over the administration’s handling of the Christmas Day bombing attempt, proposed terrorist trials in Manhattan, and the planned closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention center have put the White House even more on the defensive.

For weeks, the attacks – including from GOP moderates who typically stay out of partisan firefights – went largely unanswered.

That’s changing. While Barack Obama campaigned to change direction on issues such as the interrogation and treatment of detainees, the response to the GOP onslaught is to highlight continuity with Bush-era practices.

“The most important thing for the public to understand is we’re not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush administration handled them all through 9/11,” President Obama told CBS News on Feb. 7.

The response poses risks for the White House that cut across the electorate. For Republicans, it’s too little, too late. For Democrats, a move to align policy with Bush-era practices doesn’t fit the promises of the 2008 presidential campaign.

“National security has been a perceived Democratic weakness for the last few decades. It hurts Obama with the right and the center,” says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. “But on the other hand, he is now forced into a position where he is doing some things like the Bush administration. It not only hurts him with the left, but it raises the issue you’re just starting to hear: Was Bush really so bad, and if he was so bad, why are you doing things exactly the way he did?”

In fact, congressional GOP leaders publicly support broad lines of the president’s national security policy. They backed the decision to not drawn down troops in Iraq early on and to direct more resources to Afghanistan, including stepped-up deployment of unmanned drones to kill Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan – moves that alarm the left wing of the Democratic congressional delegation.

But the barely aborted Christmas bombing attempt aboard a Detroit-bound airliner set off rounds of congressional oversight hearings that revived sharp partisan differences.

The appearance of Attorney General Eric Holder before Congress next month will give lawmakers a venue to press their views of events to the public.

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