President Barack Obama will attempt to regain control of a boiling debate over anti-terrorism policy with a major speech on Thursday — an address that comes on the same day that former Vice President Dick Cheney will be weighing in with his own speech on the same theme.
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.
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.