The attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was more than just al Qaeda's latest attempt to bring death and destruction to American shores. It was also, in its still-unfolding political aftermath, a head-on collision between Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric and the reality of terrorism.
Obama's first response to the incident, or nonresponse, did not surprise anyone who followed his 2008 presidential campaign. As a candidate, Obama repeatedly accused the Bush administration of using terrorism to spread fear among the American public for political gain.
“Since 9/11, we've had a president who essentially fed us a politics of fear,” Obama said at a December 2007 Democratic debate in Iowa. “We have been governed by fear for the last six years,” he said two months earlier in Philadelphia. “We're tired of fear,” he said still earlier at a debate in South Carolina.
Obama pledged a new, quieter approach. He would improve America's image in the world, reach out to Muslims and dial back the fear.
So when a radical Islamist Army officer shouting “Allahu Akbar!” murdered 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, Obama's response was so low-key it took him days to recognize it as a terrorist incident. And when a radical Islamist Nigerian nearly succeeded in detonating enough explosives to bring down a Northwest Airlines jumbo jet as it approached Detroit, Obama remained silent.
Some observers thought it was a mistake for the president to continue golfing, swimming and munching shave ice in Hawaii while the nation learned the details of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's terrifying plot. But it was a deliberate plan.
“There is a reason why Obama hasn't given a public statement,” journalist Marc Ambinder wrote the day after the attempted bombing. “It's strategy.”
Ambinder, politics editor for The Atlantic and chief political consultant for CBS News, is perhaps the most reliable conduit for White House spin outside the White House itself. “A two-bit mook is sent by al Qaeda to do a dastardly deed,” Ambinder wrote, channeling the White House theory of the case. “[Obama] presides over the federal response … but an in-person Obama statement isn't needed; indeed, a message expressing command, control, outrage and anger might elevate the importance of the deed, would generate panic. …”
Obama chose not to “chest-thump, prejudge, interfere, politicize.” Instead, he would “project his calm on the American people.” It was, Ambinder wrote, “a tough and novel approach” to terrorism.
It was also dumb, and it did not survive its first contact with reality. But it was precisely what the president's supporters on the Left wanted.
A few days after the attempted bombing, a widely read blogger named Matthew Yglesias, who writes for the Center for American Progress, the think tank founded and run by Obama insider John Podesta, wrote an article titled, “Not So Scary 'Terror.' ” The Detroit plot was “pretty unserious,” Yglesias declared. “And even if you did manage to blow up an airplane in mid-air, that would be both a very serious crime and a great tragedy, but hardly a first-order national security threat.”
Yet another influential writer on the Left, the blogger Glenn Greenwald, mocked “hysteria” over the Detroit incident and said such an uproar “inevitably happens to a citizenry that is fed a steady diet of fear and terror for years. It regresses into pure childhood.” A truly tough approach to terrorism wouldn't stir such infantile anxieties, Greenwald said.
It's hard to imagine an attitude more out of touch with the public's concerns. And yet that kind of thinking is precisely what animated the Obama White House's initial reaction to the Detroit attack.
By New Year's Eve, however, Obama and his team knew they had mishandled matters. Not only had Obama remained silent for too long, but the president mischaracterized al Qaeda soldier Abdulmutallab as an “isolated extremist” in another apparent attempt to downplay the seriousness of the attack.
By Sunday, the White House sent top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan on a tour of the Sunday talk shows — Fox, NBC, ABC, CNN — to do damage control. Brennan belatedly stressed that the White House took Abdulmutallab, Yemen, al Qaeda, air safety — the whole range of issues — very, very seriously.
But Brennan's talking points could not undo one fact. On Dec. 25, Americans saw Barack Obama's carefully considered initial response to a serious terrorist incident. And it left them worried not only about the threat itself, but the president's ability to handle it.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on ExaminerPolitics.com.