Does Obama's Rhetoric on Terror Matter?

(AP Photo/John McConnico)
In a new New York Times magazine piece on President Obama's approach to counterterrorism, reporter Peter Baker references a number of former senior Bush officials who declined to defend Mr. Obama's policies – even though they generally approve of them.

Here's what Baker wrote, in part: "for the most part, [the former Bush officials] were comfortable with Obama's policies, although they were reluctant to say so on the record. Some worried they would draw the ire of Cheney's circle if they did, while others calculated that calling attention to the similarities to Bush would only make it harder for Obama to stay the course. And they generally resent Obama's anti-Bush rhetoric and are unwilling to give him political cover by defending him."

The demurral was met with criticism from some liberal bloggers.

Matthew Yglesias of the liberal site Think Progress contends that these officials are willing "to undermine support for policies that they themselves believe are keeping the country safe." He argues that this is either because they are "timid, gutless careerists," or "their feelings are hurt that a Democrat said bad things about his grossly unpopular Republican predecessor."

Steve Benen of Washington Monthly writes, "As for resenting Obama's 'anti-Bush' rhetoric, this is awfully petty."

While the president's rhetoric has apparently generated anger among former Bush-era officials, his actions have in many cases been more appealing to them than might have been expected. As Baker points out, the president kept in place a number of Bush administration officials, among them John Brennan, the former interim director of the National Counterterrorism Center who is now one of the administration's top counterterrorism advisers. He has also embraced the Patriot Act and has yet to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay despite promising to do so within a year of taking office.

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Still, the Obama administration may argue the change in rhetoric amounts to its own significant policy prescription. Mr. Obama, for instance, reportedly considers his June speech in Cairo, which was directed at the Muslim community, to be "central to his efforts to combat terrorism," as Baker reports.

"If you asked him what are the most important things he's done to fight terrorism in his first year, he would put Cairo in the top three," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said.

Officials who served under Mr. Bush suggest the tone of the administration can have a strong impact: Brennan told the Times that the "black and white" prism of the Bush years was counterproductive. Meanwhile, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said that under Mr. Obama, Washington had "lost a certain sense of urgency and commitment to combating terrorism."

If the unnamed Bush officials mentioned in the story wish to see a certain counter-terrorism strategy advance in Washington, then, they might well be right in placing significance in the president's words. It's not clear whether they are having any influence – although there have certainly been times when Mr. Obama's rhetoric has not been too far off from his predecessor's.

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