The White House warned political foes Sunday not to provoke a partisan tug of war over terrorism, with President Barack Obama yet to publicly address the thwarted attack on a US airliner.
A political storm erupted over the attempt by a 23-year-old Nigerian to bring down a Northwest jet carrying 290 people, as senior Obama aides cranked up a sweeping national and homeland security operation.
But the president, vacationing in Hawaii, conspicuously has not commented on television about the Christmas Day drama, apparently seeking to project calm and avoid the political trauma and panic unleashed by past terror incidents.
“The president believes strongly that this has to be a non-partisan issue,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told NBC in one of a string of television appearances he and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made Sunday.
“This should not be a tug of war between the two political parties. I hope everyone will resolve in the New Year to make protecting our nation non-partisan — rather than what happens in Washington, devolving into politics,” he said.
Obama got a 6 am (1600 GMT) briefing on latest developments in the probe into the airborne terror bid from top national security aides, the White House said in the latest regular bulletin on his response to the crisis.
Gibbs also said that Obama ordered a review of US no-fly watch-lists and demanded information on how a suspected radical could board the Detroit-bound airliner rigged with explosives.
After his security briefing, Obama headed to the gym for a game of pick-up basketball, as the native son recharged in balmy Hawaii.
But the president’s Republican foes made the first political thrusts following Thursday’s attack on a Northwest jet heading to Detroit, accusing him of softening the US focus on radical Islamic terror threats.
They also questioned Napolitano’s statement that the air security system “worked,” referring to the fact that alert passengers and crew jumped Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before his device could fully detonate.
New York Congressman Peter King said there was no need for Obama to “rush for a microphone” but noted the president’s media ubiquity over the past year and asked him for a “calm, reassuring” pep talk.
“Tell the American people, ‘this is what we’re doing; we’re on top of this; we’re going to win, but this is a reminder of why we always have to be alert to the evils of Islamic terrorism,'” King told CBS.
“There has been a virtual vacuum for the last day- and-a-half.”
The White House countered that Obama has constantly monitored the situation, ordered probes into airline security and the use of intelligence and hiked airport precautions.
“The president refuses to play politics with these issues as he said at West Point (in December). We must put aside petty politics and recapture the unity that we had after 9/11,” said another Obama spokesman, Bill Burton in Hawaii.
Democrats repeatedly accused ex-president George W. Bush’s administration of exploiting terror scares for political gain.
But Republicans leveraged Thursday’s drama to bolster their theme that Obama’s policies, including reaching out to the Muslim world and closing the Guantanamo Bay terror camp, were making Americans less safe.
“This whole thing should remind us, that the soft talk about engagement, closing Gitmo — these things are not going to appease the terrorists,” said South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint on Fox.
“They’re going to keep coming after us.”
Republican congressman Pete Hoekstra added “What do we have here? this is an international movement of radicalization.
“The Obama administration came in and said, ‘We’re not going to use the word terrorism anymore’ … trying to, you know, I think, downplay the threat from terrorism.”
Obama aides have been less prone to use the phrase “war on terror” than the previous White House, but insist they have refocused the US anti-terror fight.
“The president certainly has taken steps in his time in office to re-orient our priorities as it comes to fighting that war on terror,” Gibbs said.
“We are drawing down in Iraq and focusing… on Pakistan and Afghanistan, the place where the attacks of 9/11 originated,” and also focusing on Yemen and Somalia, he added.