- The W.H. response to the attempt to blow up a flight to Detroit could rank as a low point for Barack Obama. Photo: AP
From the time he launched his campaign for president three years ago, Barack Obama had to consider how he would react to the first serious act of terrorism during the campaign, or if he won, on his watch. His fellow Democrats had been thinking about the moment even longer - since the September day in 2001 when attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon defined George W. Bush’s presidency and gave Republicans a decisive advantage on a defining political issue.
And yet the White House’s response to last week’s attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit could rank as one of the low points of the new president’s first year. Over the course of five days, Obama’s Obama’ reaction ranged from low-keyed to reassuring to, finally, a vow to find out what went wrong. The episode was a baffling, unforced error in presidential symbolism, hardly a small part of the presidency, and the moment at which yet another of the old political maxims that Obama had sought to transcend – the Democrats’ vulnerability on national security – reasserted itself.
“The presidency is sometimes about symbolism and not just substance,” said Bob Shrum, who help craft Senator John Kerry’s response to the late-October message from Osama bin Laden that was a pivotal point in the 2004 campaign – and learned a painful lesson in the uneven political playing field on the question of terrorism, at least at that time.
“Kerry reacted perfectly, but it probably cost us the election,” said Shrum, who said he thought Obama had effectively changed course after his aides’ overconfident appearance on the Sunday shows following the attempted attack.
Obama’s campaign was intensely familiar with the danger a potential terror incident posed to any Democratic candidate, and all the more to one who lacked Kerry’s military service and foreign policy experience. They did everything they could to compensate with a high-profile Senate focus on nuclear disarmament and a set of graybeard validators to vouch for Obama’s readiness to lead.
A terror attack during the 2008 campaign, allies and former aides said, would have drawn a response similar to the posture he eventually took toward the financial crisis, one drawn from “Obama’s DNA,” in the words of an ally: To put politics aside, stand with the sitting president and to, ultimately, appear presidential.
The attack never came. Terrorism virtually disappeared as an issue, despite the best efforts of Obama’s opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain, who had a distinct advantage over Obama on the issue because of his military experience. And Obama aced the politics of the campaign’s sole public crisis – the financial meltdown of September 2008 – projecting concern and solidarity, acting – as his advisers were at pains to point out – like a president should.
As president, Obama has been criticized by the left for adapting many Bush administration policies – on Iraq, Afghanistan, surveillance and secret detention. But when finally forced to confront national security situations directly, from a restive Iran to a near-miss attack, Obama’s characteristic caution has appeared tentative, and the vacuum he left was filled by a political food fight between Congressional Republicans and Democrats and, ultimately, his staff.