Would We Rally Behind Obama After the Next 9/11?

We may never get hit again. But if we did, would the next president find unity fleeting?

The Big Man. President Obama's picks are safe and edgy, smart and sometimes meh. (National Journal)

Thirteen years ago this month, President George W. Bush was vacationing at his Texas ranch when his daily briefing included a memo titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S." Al-Qaida struck a month later, and the nation was at war. No memos are needed today.

ISIS is communicating directly to President Obama via the Internet and social media. "The Islamic Caliphate has been established," the spokesman, Abu Mosa, said Friday, vowing to "raise the flag of Allah in the White House."

After dismissing ISIS as al-Qaida's "JV" team last fall, the president has awakened to the bloodcurdling threat. Last week, he ordered air strikes and air drops in northern Iraq to prevent genocide and to protect U.S. assets. The CIA is reportedly arming Kurds to fight the emerging Islamic state. The world is focused on whether the United States needs to do more, despite the reluctance of Obama and most Americans to recommit troops.

But I can't shake another, darker, question. What if we get hit again with a 9/11-sized attack? More to the point, hypothetically, would a crisis pull us together or drive us apart? It's a morbid question worth asking before the worst happens, because there's reason to worry about the durability of what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

What can we learn from the Bush era? Well, the nation immediately rallied behind the fledgling president (Bush had been in office only about seven months). Members of Congress famously locked arms on the East Front steps of the Capitol and sang "God Bless America." Bush's approval ratings soared to 90 percent, as he ordered U.S. troops into Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The kumbaya period didn't last long. Three months after the attacks, Democrats mildly questioned parts of the USA Patriot Act, and Attorney General John Ashcroft said such questions "erode our national unity and diminish our resolve." Time has proved the legislation to be excessive.

Two months later, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle stepped up criticism of Bush's antiterrorism policies. In response, Republican Rep. Tom Davis accused the Democrat of "giving aid and comfort to our enemies." It was the start of a years-long strategy of the Bush administration to stoke and exploit fears of a post-9/11 attack to enhance the president's standing and defang Democrats.

The false front of bipartisanship crumbled in May of 2002 when the bin Laden memo leaked. According to a helpful chronology compiled by Dartmouth College professor Brendan Nyhan, Democrats demanded to know what else Bush knew about the attacks beforehand. White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said second-guessing is "exactly what our opponents, our enemies, want us to do."

The pattern was set for the rest of Bush's term. Democrats seized on (and often exaggerated) any morsel of evidence that undermined Bush's tough-on-terrorists image, and the White House seized on (and often exaggerated) any development that underscored its narrative. The Bush team created a new story line by invading Iraq based on evidence of weapons of mass destruction that was distorted, hyped, and, in some cases, contrived.

Bush's approval numbers declined after 9/11, slowly and steadily. His rating turned to pre-attack levels (about 50 percent) toward the end of 2003, and plummeted after his reelection, when the wheels fell off the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

What has occurred since 9/11 that might change the equation for the next president to face such a crisis? In a word, plenty. First, social media gives terrorists direct access to world leaders, the public, and potential converts. When bin Laden was taunting America with grainy videos, Facebook was still three years away from its launch (2004), and Twitter would not come along for two more (2006).

Second, it may be easier to divide America because, well, we're already more divided than in 2001. A watershed study by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who consistently express conservative or liberal views has doubled over the past two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent. The bulk of that sorting has occurred since the end of Bush's first term.

Third, the Obama White House has proved to be self-generous and ruthless in its defense. When critics said his refusal to aid Syrian rebels helped embolden ISIS, Obama tartly called the analysis a "fantasy." But it wasn't just Republicans who made the case against him. Obama's former secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, warmed up for a potential presidential bid by calling the Syria policy a failure.

Fourth, today's Republicans are looking for any excuse to take on the president. Their base wants Obama impeached. The House GOP has done everything in its power to block Obama's agenda. And now they're already testing postattack talking points.

"I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists' ability to operate in Syria and Iraq," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace. "This is just not about Baghdad. This is just not about Syria. This is about our homeland. And if we get attacked because he has no strategy to protect us, then he will have committed a blunder for the ages."

After the 9/11 attacks, the nation united for several months while Bush gained his footing as a crisis manager and prepared to wage war. We may never get hit that hard again. But if we do, one wonders how long we would stand together. Months or weeks? Days, maybe? Hours?

It's a scary question, because how we respond to an attack is almost as important as how we prevent one.

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