The dueling speeches amount to the most direct engagement so far between Obama and his conservative critics in the volatile argument over what tactics are justified in detaining and interrogating suspected enemy combatants.
The national security debate — egged on by frequent charges from Cheney that Obama is leaving the country more vulnerable to attack — is the only subject on which many Republicans believe they have been able to gain traction against a popular president and the Democratic majority that now dominate Washington.
But, as described by administration sources, Obama’s speech is also intended to quiet the ire aimed at him from the political left. Some activists are furious over his recent decisions on continuing military commissions rather than civilian trials for suspected terrorists, and his about-face in deciding to fight a court order releasing photos of detainees undergoing abuse.
Obama advisers are comparing Thursday’s speech to his big-picture Georgetown University speech on the economy last month — not intended necessarily to produce “hard news” but a sustained effort to describe and defend his policies and the political and intellectual assumptions behind them.
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A centerpiece of the president’s speech will be his plans for dispersing the detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Senate Democrats, running from the White House as never before this year, moved Tuesday to withhold $80 million he had requested to close the prison by early next year. In response, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs promised “a more detailed plan.”
Cheney will be speaking at 10:45 a.m. on “Keeping America Safe: An Address by Dick Cheney” during a 45-minute appearance at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Cheney will take questions during his open-press appearance, which was scheduled several weeks ago.
The White House and Democrats have been thrown off balance for three weeks running on a debate Republicans believe has made their opponents look weak and disingenuous on national security policy. The broader terrorism debate has produced the most embarrassing chapter of the reign of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and the more specific one on Gitmo has produced a rare Democratic slap at an Obama policy.
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that terrorism coverage accounted for 22 percent of the news hole it measured from May 11-17.
Few of those stories were the kind Obama wants to read. Democrats think the issue works both ways because it pulls unpopular Republicans like Cheney out of the dark. But it also pulls the spotlight from Democrats’ preferred subjects of health care and energy policies.
Republican have tried for months to keep up a drumbeat on Gitmo, and some Democrats have been frustrated that there has been a vacuum on their side.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has needled the president about the issue in 16 floor speeches, a Washington Post op-ed, several Sunday shows, weekly stakeouts, and a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 27 that kicked off the effort. A timeline by his office shows 22 writings and remarks, plus three videos.
The GOP got an unexpected big gift in the fallout from the statement last week by Pelosi that she was accusing the CIA of “misleading the Congress of the United States” with its briefings on waterboarding. The next evening, she put out a statement of “respect for those in the inteligence community who work to keep our country safe.”
Early Wednesday, Former Speaker Newt Gingrich published a column in the conservative Human Events headlined, “Why Speaker Pelosi Should Step Down” over her comments on the CIA waterboarding briefings.
“The person who is No. 2 in line to be commander in chief can't have contempt for the men and women who protect our nation,” Gingrich wrote. “[T]his isn't about politics. It's about national security.”
Democrats replied that they find it pathetic that the GOP is relying for the charges on a former speaker — reprimanded in a 1997 ethics case on which Pelosi was one judge as part of House panel, giving the exchange the look of massive payback. A top official said: “No House Democrat thinks she should go. None.”
David Rogers contributed to this story.