What if the panty-bomber had been less incompetent? What if the Christmas Day travelers on Northwest Flight 253 had been snoozing or were sucked into a good movie and hadn’t noticed the strange behavior of fellow passenger Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab? What if, heaven forbid, that plane had blown up in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean or above Michigan? What kind of national debate would we be having?
We would be a nation in mourning. We would pick up our morning papers and read, tearfully, the tragic stories of lives cut short by the murderous determination of another jihadist. We would remain glued to our television sets where we’d watch the 9/11 families—veterans of grief—take to the airwaves with advice for the victims’ loved ones about coping with the unthinkable. Our political leaders would call for calm and seek to reassure Americans that it is safe to fly. Our president would have declared that the terrorist network that trained and aided Abdulmutallab would pay the ultimate price for its crimes against innocent men, women and children.
Surely, some of Obama’s senior aides disagreed with the decision to allow the president to play half a dozen more rounds of golf.
Without a doubt, the debate about what went wrong and who is to blame for the “systemic failures” that allowed a known associate of terrorists in Yemen to board a plane bound for the U.S. without checked luggage would have taken place. But the conversation would likely be less political. The tragedy would have kept the focus on the urgent need to fix—once and for all—the flow of information among intelligence gatherers and security implementers.
• Lee Siegel: America’s Terrorism Amnesia • Gallery: Ranking the Terror HubsBecause no matter what you think of President Obama, he is committed to protecting Americans from terrorists who wish to do us harm, and any suggestion to the contrary is ridiculous. We will have rigorous disagreements about the strategies and tactics. And Obama has done himself irreparable harm with the right wing by admonishing America's alleged "sins" in his travels overseas and seeming to display more enthusiasm for protecting the legal rights of terrorists and detainees at Guantanamo than winning—or even referring to—the war against terror. But that does not erase the simple fact that one does not take the oath of office without assuming responsibility for the safety of each and every American citizen. One does not walk the solemn halls of the West Wing, or salute the men and women of the military, or console the families of the fallen without feeling the burden of the office he holds.
Which is why it’s so strange that he and his savvy team took so long to display the conviction finally displayed in his remarks on Tuesday. Surely, during the hours following the attempted attack, someone must have said, “Mr. President, we barely escaped disaster—we need to take this as seriously as we would if the attacker had been successful.” Surely, some of his senior aides disagreed with the decision to allow the president to play half a dozen more rounds of golf and take in Avatar with the kids before returning to Washington to ride herd on the bureaucracies responsible for the breakdown. Surely, some among his aides must have had a bad feeling that they were drifting toward disaster and that the “right” thing to do was to come back to Washington, put on a suit, and assume the role of a commander in chief in charge of the situation. Surely, some among his aides realized that the prudent path is the unpleasant path: cutting a vacation short, publicly admonishing a political ally in the Cabinet, pulling the rug out from under the individuals who granted Abdulmutallab a visa, showing anger in public despite all his tendencies to never let us see him sweat.
This is the team that studied the failures of the Bush and Clinton years and crafted an image based squarely in being everything they were not. So it is inexplicable that the president they emulated during Obama's first terror test was George W. Bush—and not the George W. Bush that rallied the nation when he stood atop the rubble at ground zero and announced to the terrorists that they would soon be hearing from America. Obama emulated the George W. Bush he heaped scorn upon during the campaign for what Democrats branded a slow and inept response to Hurricane Katrina by the Bush team.
It's not like the criticisms are inaudible from inside the bubble during a crisis; the problem is that responding to them is akin to one of those dreams where you try to run but your legs won't move. In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, and even after an impressive federal response to subsequent hurricanes in 2005, the Bush administration couldn't escape the impression that took hold in the crucial early days after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
Where does Obama go from here? That depends in part on his appetite for pain. Will he hold a Cabinet secretary like Janet Napolitano or Hillary Clinton accountable for the actions of people in their agencies? Or will he simply seek to absorb all the responsibility by saying “the buck stops here?” And how will the public respond? Will this feel like the “change” he promised—or business as usual in Washington?
By far the most interesting dynamic that Obama put into motion on Christmas Day will be impossible to measure for certain until Election Day 2010. What if those independent voters who were already parting ways with Obama over health care and runaway government spending decide that his slow response to a near-tragic terror attack is the last straw?
Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.