WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's not-so-secret counterterrorism fight against al-Qaida in Yemen and Somalia, the killing of Osama bin Laden and strong hints of a cyber war against Iran give Republicans few openings to challenge the commander in chief.
This aggressive national security policy has undercut the derisive label Republicans have successfully attached to Democrats in the past: the soft-on-defense Mommy Party. It has been one of the most effective election-year cudgels for the GOP. Just eight years ago, President George W. Bush capitalized on his tough response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Iraq's Saddam Hussein to win a second term. In a major assist to Bush's candidacy, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth used debunked claims to undermine Democratic rival John Kerry's decorated Vietnam War record and cast him as "unfit to serve."
In the past 3½ years, Obama has waged a secret campaign against al-Qaida in two countries — one on the Arab peninsula, the other on Africa's east coast. The White House officially acknowledged the lethal attacks in Yemen and Somalia in its semiannual report to Congress last Friday. Navy SEALs took out bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011 while armed drones have pursued al-Qaida terrorists within the country, degrading the terrorist group.
In public opinion polls, Obama gets high marks for his record on national security, a stark contrast to his dismal numbers on handling the nation's finances. An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in May found that 64 percent approved of Obama's handling of terrorism and 53 percent approved of the way he's managing the situation in Afghanistan. By contrast, less than half approved of his handling of the economy (46 percent), unemployment (48 percent) or gas prices (30 percent).
Republicans, who have successfully pummeled the president on the economy, have made little headway on national security.
"There's nothing like success to quell criticism," said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. "I think the fact that there have been some successes, ranging from spectacular, Osama bin Laden, to the utter decapitation of al-Qaida to the disruption of violent insurgencies in Yemen, Somalia ... western parts of Pakistan has done much to quiet some of that criticism. ... I think the Republicans are very hard-pressed to criticize that aspect of the president's foreign policy."
That hasn't stopped Republicans from fixating on what they describe as major weaknesses in Obama's national security policy. Leaks of classified information, including reports of a computer attack that has infected Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, led Republicans to demand the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate. Republicans argue that the leaks were politically driven to help Obama and have jeopardized national security.
Democrats and the administration have rejected those demands. Attorney General Eric Holder instead has appointed U.S. Attorneys Ron Machen and Rod Rosenstein to oversee the investigation into who leaked information about U.S. involvement in cyberattacks on Iran and an al-Qaida plot to place an explosive device aboard a U.S.-bound flight.
"Considering how closely in time these items were published and how favorable of an impression they left about the president's approach to national security, it is not unreasonable to ask whether these leaks were part of a broader effort to paint President Obama, in the midst of an election year, as a strong leader on national security issues," Sen. John McCain, Obama's 2008 presidential rival, said Tuesday in a blistering Senate floor speech.
The Arizona lawmaker, who is the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has called the leaks "almost unprecedented" and insisted last week that he couldn't think of "any time that I have seen such breaches of ongoing national security programs as has been the case here."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters Tuesday that the leaks "create a lack of confidence on the part of people around the world" who are cooperating with the United States.
Hardly, say Democrats.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said there is not "one shred of evidence" that individuals around Obama leaked information to enhance the president's reputation.
"They're (Republicans) just blankly asserting it and hoping it sticks. And the reason they're hoping it sticks is because the president has a very strong record on national security," Smith said in an interview. "His record makes that clear and the polls make it clear that people feel that way."
Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Republicans are "flailing around desperately trying to get some kind of handle, constantly trying to discredit the president, which doesn't serve our foreign policy or our national security."
Outside experts say the Obama administration has aggressively prosecuted leaks of classified information, charging six people under the Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information. Most notably is the case of Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified government documents, sending them to the secret-sharing website WikiLeaks.
"It's an astonishing prosecutorial record that goes far beyond what we've seen in previous administrations," said Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy issues for the Federation of American Scientists, a private group.
Republicans have been ferocious in challenging Obama's foreign policy, accusing him of being wobbly in his support for Israel, uncertain as Syrians are slaughtered and lacking toughness as Iran pushes its nuclear program. They've criticized deficit-driven cuts in the military even though they agreed to them last summer. They've suggested he cut a secret deal with Russia that would undermine missile defense, an agreement that will emerge after the election.
Among Democrats, Obama's national security record has largely quieted any criticism among liberals, but it hasn't silenced them. They see policies even tougher than Bush that has paid little heed to the Constitution, international law or the sovereignty of other nations.
"This administration, as had the last administration, appropriated to itself the power to prosecute war anywhere it pleases in the world," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. "We cannot afford this financially, militarily or morally."
Putting party labels aside, Kucinich said that, while the Bush administration declared a global war on terror, "the Obama administration has kept those wars going and expanded the wars across Africa."
"We're propelling wars. What is this all about?" Kucinich said. "We don't have enough problems here at home ... We are promoting wars around the world, and so Democrat or not, I take strong exception to the direction our country has gone with respect to our international aggression."
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.