How the Terror Threat Could Affect the Midterms

President Obama speaks to the press. Charles Dharapak / AP

When President Obama was informed last night at about 10:35 of two suspicious packages containing explosive material en route to the U.S., he ordered his national-security team to monitor the situation closely and bring him frequent updates. There are always chilling implications of terror threats against the homeland, but the impending midterm elections add a layer of complexity to the administration's response.

According to White House officials, almost a dozen investigative agencies—including the CIA, FBI, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security—have joined a widespread investigation into the origins of two packages containing explosive materials that were sent from Yemen and were intercepted in the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates. The intended destination of at least one of the packages was a synagogue in Chicago. Within 24 hours, Obama addressed the White House press corps with John Brennan, deputy national-security adviser for counterterrorism. "We've taken all the necessary and prudent steps" to respond to the situation, Obama said, adding that his administration would continue to aggressively "root out all terrorist threats."

While safety is clearly the administration's top concern, politics, as it often does, plays into the president's actions and reactions. Last Christmas, when a would-be terrorist allegedly attempted to blow up an airliner en route to Michigan, Obama, then on vacation in Hawaii, made several statements and held meetings with his national-security team. Partly because the president didn't make public comments for several days, critics claimed Obama had reacted too slowly and suggested he was too soft in responding to terror threats. This time he spoke publicly on the issue much sooner.

There's a chance that a generalized threat of terror could boost the president's and his party's standing heading into the upcoming elections, as it did President Bush in the days following September 11, 2001. A similar reminder of the terror threat was thought to have ruined John Kerry's bid in 2004. In that case, tapes of Osama bin Laden surfaced days before voters went to the polls; Kerry later blamed his loss partly on the tapes, for refocusing the national conversation on terror, an issue the GOP had been hammering on. But this year the context is different, with the terror threat much lower on voters' list of concerns. Recent polls have suggested that voters consider the economy this election's leading issue by a wide margin, and Friday's events are unlikely to change that. Still, the administration's quick reaction could burnish Obama's image as a tough-on-terror leader among at least some undecided voters.

In response to a suggestion from a reporter that the announcement of the Yemeni threat might have been somehow timed by the administration to shift support prior to a national election, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs assured reporters that the events were not linked. Raising national fears of an attack was in no way the intent of the announcement, he said, and news of the ongoing investigation was shared with the public as soon as investigators agreed it was safe to do so.

In continuing his efforts to rally Democrats before Election Day, the president had been scheduled to host a rally in Charlottesville, Va., later Friday night. Amid questions of whether Obama would alter his schedule to devote more time to surveying the ongoing terror situation and investigation, administration officials said that the president wouldn't change his schedule, and that he didn't expect the public to change theirs. "Regardless of what season we're in, the commitment of the government—Democrat or Republican—to fight terror will not waver," Gibbs said.