Job creation will take a backseat to counter terrorism on President Barack Obama's agenda next week after an Al Qaeda-linked man's failed attempt to bomb a US-bound plane forced the White House to shift its focus.
Obama returns to Washington from a roughly 11-day Hawaiian vacation faced with a public concerned about new threats, an opposition party ready to jump on a perceived political vulnerability, and a high US unemployment rate that was supposed to be his top priority for months to come.
A lot can change in 11 days.
In the advent of the failed attack, national security issues and their domestic political ramifications will take up more of Obama's time as he kicks off the second year of his presidency and tries to wrap up healthcare reform and pursue other domestic priorities.
That shift has already begun. Obama is waiting for final results from reviews he ordered into how 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allowed to get on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit allegedly with explosives in his underclothes.
Tomorrow he will meet top intelligence officials at the White House – a sign that his schedule is reflecting his new priorities.
The White House had planned a major push on job creation this year, ahead of mid-term elections in November, when Republicans are likely to lambast Obama's Democrats for not doing more to reduce double-digit unemployment.
But the botched plane attack – and the sense that the Obama team was not ready for it – has given Republicans new ammunition and jolted the White House to hone its message.
On Saturday Obama focused his weekly address on new information about the bomber, saying it appeared he had been trained and equipped by an Al Qaeda affiliate.
He did not mention the economy, but an aide said Obama would focus on both issues in the weeks and months to come.
"The president will keep working to create jobs and strengthen the economy even as he continues to do everything within his power to keep the American people safe," said Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton. "Even as we review the breakdown in protocols and procedures surrounding the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas Day, the economic and other challenges that face our nation remain urgent."
Politically, the White House also sees some urgency in highlighting the administration's record on counterterrorism.
Obama focused a large chunk of his address on Saturday on a robust defence of what his government has achieved in its war on extremists, with not-so-subtle shots at former vice-president Dick Cheney and other Republican critics woven in.
"I refocused the fight – bringing to a responsible end the war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and dramatically increasing our resources in the region where Al Qaeda is actually based, in Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Obama. Cheney has often suggested Iraq was involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
"It's why I've set a clear and achievable mission – to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist allies and prevent their return to either country," siad Obama.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said the emergence of the bomber issue could overshadow Obama's other domestic priorities – such as passing climate change legislation – while handing Republicans, who often argue Democrats are weak on national security, an issue to press.
"The failure to catch the bomber (ahead of time) has rattled the White House, Congress and the public," he said.
"In addition to becoming a higher priority and taking up more political space, the issue puts the administration on the defensive and gives Republicans some room and energy to attack." But with unemployment on Americans' minds, jobs will stay at the top of the president's priority list even as national security gains greater prominence.
"Job creation still has a very good chance to remain a priority because voters care about that above almost anything else, and legislators going into 2010 want those voters to be happy," said Zelizer. "Homeland Security won't change that." (Reuters)
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