Obama's Response to Bombings Takes a Page From History

President Barack Obama finishes speaking in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, about the Boston Marathon explosions. (National Journal)

It should be no surprise that in his two public appearances since the Boston bombings, President Obama has been restrained and cautious as much as he has been firm. In many ways, that is a lesson learned from watching history. In the immediate wake of the bombings, the biggest leadership challenge for the president, as it has been for his predecessors facing crises, is knowing what not to say just as much as knowing what to say.

The White House wanted the president to be seen as calm, in control of the response, and resolute in his determination to bring the guilty to justice. The White House also wanted him to be a uniting figure for a nation so often polarized by his presidency. "It is important to bring people together at a time like this. That's why he stressed that there are no Democrats and no Republicans today," a senior White House official said. "He also wanted to show that a tragedy like this can tell us something about ourselves, that what you see in the reflection is the nation itself" doing unselfish and compassionate things to help a shaken city and a hurting populace.

The president's planned trip to Boston Thursday to meet with victims and their families and attend an interfaith service is very much a part of what a president is expected to do after a tragedy. He uniquely is able to convey to the families the grief of the nation.

Stephen Hess, a student of the presidency since he worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses, said those goals are, in effect, "checking the boxes" — they are what you would expect from any president at a time when the country is looking for leadership and reassurance. "We're going to come together as a people; we're going to get the perpetrator; we are strong — these things have to be checked off at this point," Hess said. "But what is important is knowing enough to not go beyond that."

Hess said one of the first things anyone learns in government is that "half the information that you get at the beginning of a crisis like this is wrong." The shootings last December in Newtown, Conn., were the exception, because everything but the shooter's motive was known very quickly. That allowed Obama to have one of his finest moments as president. He responded on a personal level, as a father. He responded as the nation's mourner in chief, as the head of state. And he responded vigorously and swiftly with a legislative response, as the head of government.

"But this one is different, because there is so much we don't know," Hess said. "This is one in which you had best follow the rule that until you have some clear idea of what is going on, just shut up." It's a rule the White House has followed regarding details of the investigation. Even though investigators believed it likely that the bombing was an act of terror, Obama waited until more was known before making that declaration. And details of the investigation are being closely held. "I think he is right so far in being cautious but being firm," said Hess, who also said the White House was "very shrewd" in not declaring the bombing an act of terror too quickly.