Flight 253

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Responding to a failed attempt at a terrorist atrocity is surely a hard thing for a political leader to play. The temptation seems always to get out there, immediately, on TV, and say something. Show resolve, express anger and determination, and in the process get a bump in the polls by looking and sounding like how we have come to think a leader should look and sound in such circumstances. That Obama did not follow this clichéd pattern is impressive.

By ignoring the impulse to rush towards the nearest microphone at the earliest hour, Obama has given a proportional response to the incident. Behind the scenes, much is being done, as it should be. The national security apparatus continues to function. A thorough review has been ordered (the likely conclusion of which is that the damaging, ego-driven pre-9/11 turf wars between the several US intelligence agencies have not yet dissolved, or have re-emerged). The federal government has made immediate changes to airport security policy. Obama has, since this all kicked off on Christmas Day, been in charge, and informed.

But this was, we should remember, a failed attack: this man is not a bomber, he is a failed bomber. The administration was right in its calculation that a media frenzy fueled by the White House would only have given undue encouragement and credit to the attempted terrorists. A public show of alarm by the President would have afforded them the semblance of victory when they have achieved little. By staying quiet, letting his staff handle the incident, and by sticking to his prior plans, Obama played it right.

The moment chosen to speak — a brief, low-key press statement by the President three days after the incident from his vacation in Hawaii — was well-picked. Fear and anger had subsided, enabling the public to appraise the event more rationally and with some distance. The President had more facts at his disposal: he was able to tell them things they did not know; pointing not merely to the likely aggressor but also providing details of what is being done in response. The shouters on the looney right, bawling that Obama had shown himself to be insufficiently interested in the safety of the US, were rebutted with hard facts and even temperament. Most importantly, by waiting, Obama spared America the unhelpful circus of competitive fear-mongering that has ravaged the political discourse surrounding such episodes in the past.

Flight 253 should be viewed with a sense of perspective. Howard Fineman is usually excellent, but his latest piece for Newsweek seems off the mark. Some of the article is quite interesting. But I’m not sure about its big point, which seems to be that pursuing health care reform was daft because, as “underscored by the Nigerian bomber”, the US is at war. You read this often: By tackling healthcare, Obama has tried to do too much, given that the US is at war and was in a recession last year. Fineman is right that the healthcare bill is imperfect. In some respects it is a poor piece of legislation, a missed opportunity to be truly radical, but that is the inevitable result of (necessary) compromise with those who disagree. It’s off the mark to argue that much-needed reform shouldn’t have been pursued because there’s other stuff on the President’s plate. That view pervades the US journalistic establishment — that what is arguably the world’s preeminent bureaucracy can’t handle multi-tasking. It can. And certainly it shouldn’t be frightened into inaction by a man who set fire to his pants.

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