While it has been noted many times, it is worth mentioning again that the initial White House response to the foiled Christmas Day bombing was terrible. From Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's "the system worked" comments to Obama's first painfully measured announcement about an "isolated extremist," it is hard to imagine a worse way of assuring Americans the administration was up to the job. The president and his team recognized this and pivoted quickly to acknowledging that the security lapses were unacceptable and then, over the weekend, to conceding that there is indeed an al Qaeda connection.
Obama's trademark response to huge news, to underreact and refuse to be pushed to a quick decision or resolution, doesn't work so well when it comes to terrorism. On this Americans don't seem to share his long view. Obama's advisers realized several days into the mess that he was allowing Cheney and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and others to drive the entire narrative about his administration's weakness on national security. The president has not been as soft on terrorism as Cheney paints him to be — he has tripled down in Afghanistan, increased drone strikes in Pakistan and coordinated with the Yemeni government to use air strikes against al Qaeda leaders there. But his delayed response and measured rhetoric create self-inflicted political problems.
Obama has made clear his belief that tough talk and strong rhetoric in fact fuel extremists and don't help mitigate the threat facing the United States from terrorist cells around the world. But since we were shaken forever by Sept. 11, 2001 that is what we have become accustomed to — a firm and bold response that tells us everything humanly possible is being done to keep us safe. Most Americans are only learning now that Yemen is a new terrorist breeding ground and al Qaeda safe haven, and are only learning now that our government has been working with the Yemeni government for some time to fight al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. But when an attack is foiled by some luck and a brave passenger, it is a bit late to convince the public the government was on the case.
Unfortunately, a president is part salesman, and though that part of the job may make Obama uncomfortable, sell he must. He may think he can lead silently, but waiting until Cheney chides him to become emphatic and resolute is a mistake.
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