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Partisan Divide On National Security Debate Shrinks

LYNN NEARY, host: That larger political struggle includes national security. Later today, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney travels to the Citadel in South Carolina to deliver a speech on security. The issue has traditionally been a bright line between hawks and doves, Republicans and Democrats. Now, two years after President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, the politics around national security are no longer clear. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: When President Obama went to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize, he surprised many in the audience by giving a speech that justified the use of force.

President BARACK OBAMA: For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism, it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits or reason.

LIASSON: That cast against type Nobel speech represented President Obama's approach to foreign policy. As a candidate, he ran against the war in Iraq. As president, he escalated the war in Afghanistan and carried out more drone attacks against terrorists than his hawkish predecessor.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Obama's been successful, in some ways more successful than Bush, at pursuing the Bush agenda.

LIASSON: That's national security analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who points to the president's most conspicuous successes: the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the drone attack on terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki. But the president has received very little credit with the public for those missions accomplished. He got a short-lived bump in the polls after bin Laden's death and none at all after Awlaki's. And although the Obama team will surely highlight these accomplishments in next year's campaign, the White House is well aware of how little voters care about national security right now, and the president's tone reflected that understanding when he made a very low-key announcement of Awlaki's death.

OBAMA: The death of Awlaki marks another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates. Furthermore, this success is a tribute to our intelligence community and to the efforts of Yemen and its security forces who have worked closely with the United States over the course of several years.

LIASSON: There has been one big change in national security - it's all but disappeared from public debate. Part of that is because the economy is so overwhelming, but it's also because the partisan divide has shrunk on this issue. Even House Speaker John Boehner praises the president's aggressive efforts against the Taliban, and national security comes up rarely on the Republican presidential campaign trail. When it does come up, it often centers on the one area of foreign policy where the president has had the least success: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Here's Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner, at the GOP debate in Orlando next month.

MITT ROMNEY: He addressed the United Nations in his inaugural address and chastised our friend, Israel, for building settlements and said nothing about Hamas launching thousands of rockets into Israel. Just before Bibi Netanyahu came to the United States, he threw Israel under the bus...

LIASSON: This is the one foreign policy issue with some potential to cause political problems for the president, as Republicans try to make inroads with the Democrats' traditional base of Jewish voters. But on the whole, says Michael O'Hanlon, national security should be a plus for the president next year, albeit a small one.

O'HANLON: Americans want to see a commander-in-chief who's up to the job. They know we live in a dangerous world. Even if these are not issues where Americans are going to be voting enthusiastically, they at least want to know that the incumbent in the White House is competent and not going to make huge mistakes. They at least want to have a reason not to vote against him. So if nothing else, Obama has inoculated himself against people leaving him or leaving the Democratic Party out of concern that he's weak on national defense.

LIASSON: Mitt Romney has about as much national security experience as Mr. Obama did when he ran for president, and Romney knows that competence in foreign policy is a threshold qualification when voters choose a commander-in-chief. So Romney unveiled his foreign policy brain trust yesterday: 22 special advisors and 13 working groups, many of them high-profile veterans of the Bush administration. And today Romney will give what is being described as a major foreign policy address - not so much to break new ground but to show a basic command of these issues. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.