In Fahrenheit 9/11, filmmaker Michael Moore juxtaposes images and words of a terrorist attack in Israel with President Bush's first words about the incident, spoken to a press pool on a golf course, with him leaning casually against a tree. Today, as the nation's law enforcement agencies respond to an attempted terrorist attack on U.S. soil, as the cable news channels and news websites pull in reinforcements to cover the incident from all angles, President Obama has been silent.
In fact, he's been golfing. He received a counterterrorism briefing early this morning, Hawaii time, and moments later, left for the gym. The president's vacation activities might have become the subject of a fierce partisan fight -- but really, the only carping is coming from the usual suspects on the right.
There is a reason why Obama hasn't given a public statement. It's strategy.
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 wont to to) 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).
Obama of course will say something at some point. Had the terrorist blown up the plane, it's safe to assume that Obama would no longer be in Hawaii. In either case, the public will need presidential fortification at some point. But Obama is willing to risk the accusation that he is "soft" on terrorism or is hovering above it all, or is just not to be bothered (his "head's in the sand," or "golfing comes first") in order to advance what he believes is the proper collective response to a failed act of terrorism.
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.
In a sense, he is projecting his calm on the American people, just as his advisers are convinced that the Bush administration projected their panic and anger on the self-same public eight years ago.
It's a tough and novel approach -- and not at all (as they say in Britain) party political -- because the standard political script would have the president and his attorney general appearing everywhere as soon as possible.
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is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.