Nov 19, 2015 5:02 PM

Analysis: Obama refugee argument fails as Democrats desert

The Associated Press

MANILA, Philippines (AP) As anxiety about Syrian refugees entering the U.S. took hold this week, President Barack Obama was having none of it. Halfway across the globe, he scolded politicians questioning his plan to take in 10,000 Syrians in light of the Paris attacks, dismissing them as fear-mongers scoring political points.

Obama's dressing down was biting, passionate and quotable. It was also risky.

Justified or not, fears of terrorism spreading from the war-ravaged Middle East to U.S. shores are not limited to the president's political opponents. What to some was a skillful takedown of a dangerous canard could also be viewed as a flip dismissal of legitimate and widespread anxiety

"Apparently, they're scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America," Obama said, in a dig aimed at Republicans.

But many Democrats weren't buying what he said. In a major embarrassment for Obama, 47 Democrats abandoned the lame-duck president Thursday as the House approved fresh barriers for Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to enter the United States.

Democrats complained that top administration officials who were sent to Capitol Hill to calm fears had failed make a convincing argument. "I've seen better presentations in my time," Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said.

In surveys conducted since IS extremists killed 129 in Paris, Americans have expressed broad concern that they or their families could fall victim to terrorism, and overwhelming support for ramped-up security checks in public places. Many have said they favor a halt to Syrian refugees entering the homeland at least temporarily.

Their concerns have been echoed by presidential candidates, lawmakers from both parties, and the more than half of U.S. governors who have raised concern about Syrian refugee resettlement.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, said a pause in accepting Syrian refugees may be needed, although he later said he was satisfied with the administration's case. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin have called for strengthening the vetting process, and Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., called for a total halt until the government can show the screening is as strong as possible.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate's intelligence panel, joined a Republican colleague's call for restricting visas for anyone recently in Iraq or Syria.

"It is against the values of our nation and the values of a free society to give terrorists the opening they are looking for" by not tightening entry restrictions, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said before Thursday's vote.

Driving concerns is the prospect that terrorists might use Obama's refugee program to enter the United States and launch an attack, although the legitimacy of that threat has been tough to determine.

A Syrian passport was found near one of the attackers in Friday's attacks, but a top German official later said it might have been a fake designed to stoke apprehension about refugees. Such apprehension has already taken hold across much of Europe, where many countries have started closing or tightening their borders.

On one level, it was unsurprising that Obama reacted as strongly as he did. Just a couple months ago, Obama took heat for not doing more to help desperate, displaced families fleeing a war that has haunted his presidency. The images of a drowned boy washed up on the shore became a symbol of the West's failure. Obama pledged to accept roughly 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year.

The rapid shift in other direction struck administration officials as particularly short-sighted. Obama, attending back-to-back summits in Turkey and the Philippines, followed the debate at home as it spiraled almost overnight.

The global response to IS has been a dominant theme in Obama's meetings with world leaders in both countries, and as he met with the Philippine leader on Wednesday, Obama mocked GOP leaders for talking tough and said their offensive rhetoric could be a potent recruitment tool for terrorists.

"They've been playing on fear in order to try to score political points or to advance their campaigns," Obama said.

There were signs Thursday the White House had recognized the issue's potential for sounding off-key. It mounted a public relations campaign, enlisting top officials to explain the rigors of the screening process. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough briefed House Democrats before Thursday's vote, spoke to wary governors, published a blog post detailing the vetting system and scheduled a conference call so Americans could hear about it first-hand.

Hosting a chat on Twitter, White House spokesman Josh Earnest fielded a question from user Keith White, @keethers: "I feel conflicted. But should the President address the nation directly? Lay out the vetting process to reassure the American people?" The spokesman replied in a softer tone than Obama had the day before: "Understandable but refugees are subjected to most intense/rigorous screening of anyone entering US."

Obama got support from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in opposing refugee restrictions. "We cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values and our humanitarian obligations," she said.

Reid predicted the House legislation would not get through the Senate, telling reporters: "Don't worry, it won't get passed. OK? So, next question."


EDITOR'S NOTE: Josh Lederman and Kathleen Hennessey cover the White House for The Associated Press and are traveling with the president.


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