Not A Reason Why Coakley Lost: Obama's Terrorism Policies

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In his victory speech last night, Republican Scott Brown told his supporters that the Constitution  does "not grant rights and privileges to enemies in wartime. In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them." This was a jibe at the counterterrorism policies of President Obama -- policies he associated with Democrat Martha Coakley during their campaign exchanges. Coakley's advisers have hinted that blue collar voters got Brown's message, pointing out that the majority of Americans disagree with the administration's decision to try certain bad guys in federal courts in New York. (This was a big complaint of Brown's.) In his election analysis, Brown's pollster Neil Newhouse quoted voters who picked up on this charge, but he pointedly did not list it as one of Brown's 12 keys to victory.

Now, Republicans will point to the latest NBC/News Wall Street Journal survey, in which 45% of voters said they approve of the way Obama is "dealing with the war on terror."  That's ten points lower than a similar question: "When it comes to protecting the American public from terrorism, do you think the government has done an excellent job (7%), a good job (50%), not so good a job (28%), or a poor job (13%)?"

The inclusion of the phrase "war on terrorism" -- something the Obama team believes that Americans associated with discredited politics of the past administration -- primes voters to respond differently. When asked the question without the "war" trigger, Obama's approval vaults up to 57%. That's not bad.

The Washington Post and ABC News ask the question this way: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling the threat of terrorism?" Approve: 55% -- Disapprove: 42%  CBS News and the New York Times similarly show Obama's approval rating on terror to be over 50%.

This isn't conclusive, but it's strong anecdotal evidence to suggest two things: (1) the "war on terror" phraseology remains a contested and polarizing phrase, and (2) Americans generally think the administration is doing a good job on counterterrorism -- even after the attempted Christmas Day bombing.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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