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04.17.13

President Obama Seizes the Spotlight After the Boston Marathon Bombings

The president is taking command by using television and heading to Boston. Howard Kurtz on how he’s learned from his past missteps.

On his first Christmas as president, Barack Obama did not emerge publicly after a Nigerian man tried to blow up a jetliner bound for Detroit, only to be thwarted by passengers.

It was not until December 27 that Obama came out of seclusion on a Hawaiian vacation and vowed to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us”—this to tamp down a furor over Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano having insisted that “the system worked” in the mid-air attack.

The lessons of that 2009 episode were on display this week as the president twice went before the cameras after the Boston Marathon bombings, even when he had little to report. The projection of leadership was deemed more important than the incremental details of the investigation.

Nor did the White House waste much time announcing that the president would visit Boston on Thursday. The cumulative response amounts to a learning experience for Obama, whose low-key handling of earlier terror incidents may have been a reaction to the intense, color-coded, high-alert ethos of the Bush era. 

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Speaking from the White House Tuesday, President Obama discussed the FBI investigation into the Boston bombings, which he called an act of terrorism.

“No doubt, we gave him bad advice,” former White House adviser David Axelrod tells me about the Christmas Day bombing. “This was over a holiday weekend, facts were still evolving and Napolitano was going out on Sunday shows and could brief the nation.” Still, he says, “that advice neglected the important, ministerial role the president plays in times of crisis. Even though he was in constant contact with his team, people needed to see and hear from him. We all learned that lesson.”

Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush’s press secretary, frames the challenge in similar terms. “An important part of the president’s job is to calm the public, console the public, speak about what the government is doing. His absence becomes noted.”

In Obama’s case, says Fleischer, “his words have been the right words. The only issue I see is that the manner in which he speaks lacks emotion. He doesn’t connect through emoting.”

Some officials appear multiple times a day during a crisis, which would amount to overexposure for a president. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has been ubiquitous since the bombing, as was New Jersey’s Chris Christie after Hurricane Sandy. But Obama seems to have grasped that being seen in the wake of tragedy—on a limited basis—is important, as he demonstrated after the mass shootings in Tucson and Newtown, when he more visibly choked up.

Obama’s low-key handling of earlier terror incidents may have been a reaction to the intense, color-coded, high-alert ethos of the Bush era.

“One of the lessons learned over the past 10 to 15 years is that presidents need to step up to this role at times of uncertainty,” says Anita Dunn, Obama’s former communications director. “The role of a national leader is to tell people what’s going on, even if there’s not a lot to tell, and reassure them that America will do what it needs to do.”

The White House took steps to portray Obama as taking charge of the case, telling reporters he had convened an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and others.

After the 2009 attack on the jetliner, Axelrod and another top Obama aide, Dan Pfeiffer, apologized for counseling him not to make a public statement sooner, according to Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman in his book Kill or Capture. Klaidman also faulted Obama’s “intellectualized” belief that the country did not need to come to a halt every time there was a failed attempt at terrorism.

Presidents in the television age have long assumed the role of consoler-in-chief, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated after the 1986 Challenger explosion. Bill Clinton lifted his fortunes after losing Congress to the Republicans with a stirring response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Mike McCurry, Clinton’s former White House press secretary, says Obama’s situation in terms of the bully pulpit is quite different. “Clinton had just endured a round of press coverage questioning whether he—and the presidency—was ‘relevant,’” McCurry says. “I don’t think anyone is asking that question about President Obama.”

Still, says McCurry, “the assignment is the same. To bring the country together, make us feel confident there will be a decisive response, and minister to those who are wounded and broken.”

In his Tuesday appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama adjusted his rhetoric by declaring the Boston Marathon bombings to be “an act of terrorism,” a word he had conspicuously avoided in his initial response Monday.

“Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terrorism,” the president said. By that standard, it is hard to understand why he didn’t immediately use that word to brand the attack, which has killed three people and wounded nearly 200, as terrorism.

Fleischer, however, defended Obama’s early reluctance to call the attack terrorism, saying an administration must be cautious about not putting out information that turns out to be wrong. Bush was criticized for his tentative remarks from a school on the day of the 9/11 attacks, and for not immediately returning to Washington, but Fleischer recalled that there were still five planes unaccounted for that could have been used for further attacks.

“People are being much kinder to President Obama today than to President Bush on 9/11,” he said.

Obama on Tuesday sought to project a mixture of compassion and resolve, again vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice. “The American people refuse to be terrorized,” he said, citing acts of “kindness,” “generosity,” and “love” by bystanders at the race. This, he said, is “who we are, what America is.”

With saturation coverage of the bombings, Obama’s remarks were replayed on the air almost as often as the explosions. So his tone is of paramount importance.

Obama’s job, says Dunn, is to offer “the articulation of what a nation is feeling, acknowledging the pain that the families and victims are feeling” and channeling “the thoughts and prayers of an entire nation.”