Sending a signal

SENDING A SIGNAL…. If you’ve been following the news the past couple of days, you’ve no doubt seen plenty of coverage of the attempted terrorism aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. And while you’ve also probably seen some political figures rush to get on television — God help anyone caught between Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) and a camera — President Obama has remained largely scarce. Indeed, yesterday, the president went golfing.

Marc Ambinder noted yesterday that there’s a deliberate White House strategy underway.

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 want to do) 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. […]

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 the Bush/Cheney era, we know officials read from a far different script. Incidents like these became opportunities to exploit. Top officials — Bush, Cheney, Rice, Ashcroft, Ridge — would fan out and start hitting the talking points. There’d be talk about invading Yemen. Maybe the Bush gang would get a bump in the polls, maybe Dems and administration critics would hold their fire for a few days. If they didn’t, the White House could take comfort in knowing that critics would be accused of “aiding and abetting” terrorists by attacking the Commander in Chief in the wake of a crisis.

Obama and his team obviously prefer a far more mature, strategic approach. It’s about projecting a sense of calm and control. It’s about choosing not to elevate some lunatic thug who set himself on fire.

Indeed, notice the pattern throughout the year. The Obama administration has taken out Saleh al-Somali, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, and Baitullah Mehsud, while taking suspected terrorists Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, and Hosam Maher Husein Smadi into custody before they could launch potential attacks.

In each case, there were no high-profile press conferences, no public chest-thumping, no desire to politicize the counter-terrorism successes. Indeed, most of the country probably never heard a word about any of these developments.

It’s about competent and effective leadership, and it’s what the country was sorely lacking up until 11 months ago.