HONOLULU, Hawaii – Republican heavyweights steered a political storm toward Barack Obama's Hawaiian beachside retreat Wednesday, branding the US president soft on terror after a Christmas Day airliner attack.
Obama foes seized on the aftermath of the thwarted plot to attack Obama's entire national security policy and closing Guantanamo Bay, escalating a fight sparked as the president faces his first big test in confronting terrorism.
The row juxtaposed Obama's measured crisis management and capacity to overcome an early administration misstep on the attack with Republican assaults that painted Democrats weak on national security -- a potent past tactic.
It also raised the question of whether Republicans had rebuilt credibility with the public on national security, which appeared to hurt the party in the 2008 elections after grinding years of war and challenged US power.
"In the Obama administration, protecting the rights of terrorists has been more important than protecting the lives of Americans," said Newt Gingrich, a former Republican House speaker and possible 2012 presidential candidate.
"That must now change decisively," Gingrich said a letter to supporters.
John Boehner, current Republican leader in the House of Representatives issued a statement criticizing Obama for treating suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a criminal rather than a mortal enemy of the United States.
"We're fighting a war on terror, and this was a terrorist act," Boehner said, striking a Republican theme critical of Obama's use of a mix of civilian courts and military tribunals to try terror suspects.
Former vice president Dick Cheney also weighed in, with a hard hitting statement to the Politico website.
"(We) are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren't, it makes us less safe," Cheney said.
"Why doesn't he want to admit we're at war? It doesn't fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office."
The White House has sparred with Cheney before, and given he left office with approval ratings of below 30 percent, appears to relish the fight.
"It is telling that Vice President Cheney and others seem to be more focused on criticizing the administration than condemning the attackers," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer in a blog post.
"This President is not interested in bellicose rhetoric, he is focused on action," Pfeiffer said.
"Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from Al-Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country.
"It seems strangely off-key now, at a time when our country is under attack, for the architect of those policies to be attacking the President."
Republicans pounced on an early misstep on the Christmas Day attack on a Northwest jet, after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the "system worked" -- apparently referring to aviation security measures following the attack.
But given the fact a known extremist was able to board a US airliner with high explosives concealed in his underwear, the comment appeared jarring.
Obama's denunciation on Tuesday of "systemic failures" in the intelligence system seemed partly aimed at squelching controversy over Napolitano's comment and to show he was in charge of fixing the problems.
With advanced telecommunications technology, a president can conduct his job anywhere in the world at any time. But the fact Obama has been relaxing in his native Hawaii, and not in Washington, may also have helped Republicans.
Obama broke his silence on the attack with a televised statement on Monday, attempting to portray calm and urgency.
But when Obama made a second statement on US intelligence glitches on Tuesday there was not time to rig up the Marine base hosting the appearance for live television.
As a result, the president's voice was broadcast on television at first using an audio feed -- contributing to an impression he was far away from the action in Washington.
Democrats cried foul when Republicans complained at the weekend that Obama, enjoying an energetic holiday of golf, tennis and workouts was guilty of a presidential vacuum over the attacks.
But they used identical tactics when former president George W. Bush retreated to his ranch during a presidency punctuated by national security crises -- though Obama has so far had much less vacation time.
© AFP 2013