Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 30, 2009

NO REWARD FOR BEING A GROWN-UP.... I have no idea if Republicans' insane attacks against President Obama on counter-terrorism are going to have an effect. The daily tracking polls haven't shown much of a shift as of yet, but much of the public is enjoying the holiday season and may not be fully engaged in the GOP talking points of the day.

Ideally, Americans would see through the baseless condemnations of the White House, and recognize them for what they are: petty and stupid. But if public attitudes actually start to shift, and wrong-but-loud criticism undermines confidence in the administration's national security policies, there is an alternative strategy available.

Up until now, the president has chosen a mature, sensible, and effective approach to counter-terrorism. Marc Ambinder had an item over the weekend about the deliberate White House strategy in response to the failed Abdulmutallab plot.

Here's the theory: a two-bit mook is sent by Al Qaeda to do a dastardly deed. He winds up neutering himself. Literally.

Authorities respond appropriately; the President (as this president is want to do) presides over the federal response. His senior aides speak for him, letting reporters know that he's videoconferencing regularly, that he's ordering a review of terrorist watch lists, that he's discoursing with his Secretary of Homeland Security.

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 (because Obama usually DOESN'T talk about the specifics of cases like this, and so him deciding to do so would cue the American people to respond in a way that exacerbates the situation. [...]

Let the authorities do their work. Don't presume; don't panic the country; don't chest-thump, prejudge, interfere, politicize (in an international sense), don't give Al Qaeda (or whomever) a symbolic victory; resist the urge to open the old playbook and run a familiar play.

Republicans didn't care for that approach, and preferred a collective display of pants-wetting. GOP voices and the media decided the strategy to deny terrorists a p.r. victory wasn't good enough. This was a time for partisan grandstanding, not mature leadership.

Again, maybe Americans will find the president's approach compelling. They should. But at this point, it seems pretty obvious that the president acting like a grown-up is going over the political world's head.

There's apparently an expectation that the president can -- and probably should -- exploit incidents for as much political gain as possible. So, for example, when U.S. forces, acting on the president's orders, successfully took out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya and one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa, the president should appear before the cameras and explain, "Hey, look at me! I took out one of the world's most dangerous terrorists!" When U.S. forces, acting on the president's orders, killed Baitullah Mehsud, the terrorist leader of the Taliban movement Pakistan, Obama should assemble reporters to declare, "Booyah! Who's da man?"

When the Obama administration took suspected terrorists Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, and Hosam Maher Husein Smadi into custody before they could launch their planned attacks, each and every instance requires its own press conference, in which the president can proclaim, "Republicans' talk is cheap; I'm the one keeping Americans safe."

The president, by all appearances, finds such shameless politicization of counter-terrorism offensive. And it is. But Republicans are running an aggressive misinformation scheme, and if it's effective, the White House may need to reconsider whether the public rewards or punishes leaders who act like grown-ups.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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I live 20 minutes west of Detroit Metro airport and I run into people who don't know about the terrorist attack.

Posted by: grs on December 30, 2009 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

Steve writes: (people expect president Obama) exploit incidents for as much political gain as possible. "

Let's clone Representative Grayson, and have him on 24/7, telling the truth- as Harry Truman said- until it hurts."

Posted by: DAY on December 30, 2009 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

Another alternate strategy would be to capture Osama bin Laden. That would certainly be worthy of a press conference, and it just might shut the Republicans up for a few minutes, too.

Posted by: ben on December 30, 2009 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

And what would be the response from the right if the President did go on tv every time to announce that another terrorist had been killed or captured? Well, if paying respects to fallen soldiers at Dover AFB is pandering to the cameras, then they would go absolutely ape-shit over this.

Posted by: ComradeAnon on December 30, 2009 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

It should be clear by now that the nature of political attacks has less to do with their merits or lack thereof. No one really cares if it's right or wrong. What matters is that it changes the conversation. So, instead of Obama looking presidential and resolute, it becomes about Obama being a typical liberal wuss. Is it unfair? Of course. It is effective. Undoubtedly.

Posted by: walt on December 30, 2009 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

This post and those below regarding Cheney's remarks, and of Rep. King, bring home the point that we -- and certainly the GOP, for all their chest thumping -- are a bunch of cowards and crybabies. The country managed to help win WWII without shredding the Constitution (OK, except for the Japanese-Americans being interned), but now it seems everything must be 100% foolproof and safe before we will stick our noses outside. The British soldiered on for years with constant bombings by the IRA; from the reaction of our country since 9-11 it seems they are made of sterner stuff. We need to do the best we can, hold people accountable when they fail, and keep moving forward.

Posted by: Michael Carpet on December 30, 2009 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

Let's crush this weak corporatist sellout and get some real tough guys back in the white house. If Obama won't fight for everything I want, then we'll fight him. I want a fighter. A fighter who will fight. Fight for what's right. Which is what I want, exactly when I want it, in the way I want it.


Posted by: Jack B. Nimble on December 30, 2009 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

The country managed to help win WWII without shredding the Constitution (OK, except for the Japanese-Americans being interned)

kind of a big exception there.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on December 30, 2009 at 10:58 AM | PERMALINK

I realize I'm just a DFH at heart, but this kind of calm professionalism is exactly the kind of "change" I was interested in when I voted for the guy. I quite enjoy it, compared with the showboating end-zone-dance the Bushistas did every chance they could, even when they were busting clueless losers fed fantasies by eager informants.

It would be nice if there were some wingmen in Congress (Grayson? Anyone?) who could counter-attack the GOP hard on their nonsense (the Richard Reid story makes a good hammer), but the White House should stike to its plan.

Posted by: biggerbox on December 30, 2009 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

Another alternate strategy would be to capture Osama bin Laden. That would certainly be worthy of a press conference, and it just might shut the Republicans up for a few minutes, too.

You're kidding - they will immediately have a furor over where OBL should be incarcerated and how he should be tried.

Posted by: Arun on December 30, 2009 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, so Obama is the entire Democratic party now?

Not a single congressional Democrat is capable of getting on TV and pointing all those things out, or asking Republicans why they bounced TSA funding or why they still haven't approved the head of the TSA?

(Also, grammar check: as the president is WONT to do, not WANT)

Posted by: inkadu on December 30, 2009 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe they should make set of playing cards. That was so awesome when the Bushies did it.

Posted by: budpaul on December 30, 2009 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

Two options, here:

1) Come up with bigger and better lies than the Republicans.

2) Explicitly call Republicans liars and scare-mongers on every single media appearance. And I'm not talking about some blogger on a talking heads show, I mean Congressmen and the President. Call them liars and make them defend their bullshit. No more of this "high road" crap.

Posted by: Scrappled on December 30, 2009 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

Excuse me, Steve, but your post has an inane headline. If you have "no idea," then why are you presuming that all this works with the American public? It will work if Dems cower and shut up and act worried and do not respond forcefully, and let Republicans repeat lies constantly. But it need not work -- and all this worry-warting is premature and not helpful.

Posted by: Theda Skocpol on December 30, 2009 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

Obama is guilty of dereliction of grandstanding.

Posted by: alvord on December 30, 2009 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

Judging by the letters to the editor of my local paper, the Republican plan is working beautifully. Today there's a letter complaining about Obama's extensive vacationing during a time of war.

Un. Freakin. Believable.

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on December 30, 2009 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

There are actually 2 problems with Obama's response:

1. Where's the sense of outrage that this guy was let on a plane? It's not being infantile to express some frustration and emotion about the failure of security--in fact, it's grown-up and let's people know you "get it."

2. Besides the security failure itself, people are getting upset about new security rules they know to be inane. I heard one commentator refer to this as "security theater." People want to be safe and are willing to go through extra hardships, but they recognize bullshit TSA maneuvering when they see it, and they're sick of it.

So while his response to the actual incident was technically proficient, it mostly missed what people were upset about--the security issues. This lack of emotional connection is Obama's biggest weakness.

Posted by: polthereal on December 30, 2009 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

Oh Steve, get real. If Obama did that, you know exactly what Fox News and the right wing bloggers would do with it. "What a narcissist! It's all about him! He's exploiting the terrorist danger to America for his own aggrandizement!" The Sunday news programs would all devote at least one session to an earnest panel discussion on the topic "Is Obama a pathological narcissist?" And their special, exclusive guests John McCain and Dick Cheney would emphatically say that he is.

It's like the trip to Europe during the campaign. John McCain had one ad ready to go if Obama visited a veteran's hospital, attacking him for exploiting "our brave boys" for a photo op, and another ad ready to go attacking him for neglecting them if he didn't. You can't win with these people, so Obama should probably just go on doing the right thing.

Posted by: T-Rex on December 30, 2009 at 11:25 AM | PERMALINK

I am really sick of this crap. The GOP acts like NOBODY can take care of themselves and it is there GOD GIVEN DUTY to tell the country what REAL Americans think and feel. Everybody I know thinks the response was just fine. Nobody got hurt, the security holes for this incident will be filled and we will go on living our lives without sensationalizing the bomber. But then I guess if we're not the media or the politicians we aren't REAL Americans.

Posted by: SYSPROG on December 30, 2009 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

Obama understands the difference between governing and campaigning. Bush, Cheney and Rove never made such a distinction.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on December 30, 2009 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

I am so upset at the complete incompetence of the TSA.


I think everyone reading this agrees with me.

Except for one tiny little problem....

Posted by: neil wilson on December 30, 2009 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK

It's not just King, it's all of the Republicans.

Dana Perino saying the US was never attacked while Bush was President?

Thye've just mastered the "big lie" as Hitler frist coined it, and Joseph Goebbels further clarifed the Republican modus operandi.

From Goebbels, courtesy of Wikipedia:

"That is of course rather painful for those involved. One should not as a rule reveal one's secrets, since one does not know if and when one may need them again. The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous."

And from a WWII OSS psychological profile of Hitler, also courtesy of Wikipedia:

"His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it."

Same tools the Nazis used.

And, when you consider Iraq, the same phony approach the Germans used to justify invading Poland in 1939.

Posted by: mamzic on December 30, 2009 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK

"Republicans didn't care for that approach, and preferred a collective display of pants-wetting." Please continue to characterize their response in this manner.

Mockery works much better than trying to seriously address their unserious arguments. If the public sees Rep King on the teevee and thinks "pissypants," perhaps the media dynamic will change.

Posted by: danimal on December 30, 2009 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

I think your key point is that at the moment not a lot of people are paying attention and even hearing the Republican blather. By the time they are attending again, the situation will be in the past, new methodologies will be in place or planned, and perhaps, there will be some alternate stories about how this individual's mental state was not the best and thus an understanding that there isn't a need to invade Yemen.

Posted by: elisabeth on December 30, 2009 at 12:27 PM | PERMALINK

"There's apparently an expectation that the president - and probably should exploit incidents for as much political gain as possible." Steve Benen.

It's just the Republicans' version of "bread and circuses". When your entire political philosophy consists of major tax cuts for the obscenely rich, you HAVE to have something to divert the voters' attention.

Posted by: Doug on December 30, 2009 at 10:00 PM | PERMALINK

This is what the VP is for...look at the role Cheney played (and continues to play)...if Biden could be trusted to stay on script and replay this message over and over again, he could be the secret weapon that rebuts the Republican cant and reminds the attention-deficit afflicted American public and press that real action trumps chest-thumping any day. The loss of a VP-as-hatchet-man role due to Biden's unfortunate case of foot-in-mouth disease is a real liability to the Dems.

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