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Obama Faces Test Amid National Security Crisis

January 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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It's been 13 days since the attempted attack on a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit thrust Barack Obama into the first national security crisis of his presidency. Jim Lehrer asks a panel of experts to gauge how the president is managing the situation.
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JIM LEHRER: It’s been a busy 13 days for President Obama, since a failed Christmas Day attack on a U.S. airliner approaching Detroit. The incident occurred just hours after the first family departed for Hawaii to celebrate the holidays with family. Instead, most of Mr. Obama’s time was spent in briefings and secure conference calls.

And, each day, details emerged on the Nigerian suspect and the U.S. government’s failure to prevent the attack. In two statements to the American public, the president labeled it a systemic failure and he launched a full review.

Yesterday, back in the White House, he met with his national security team. He said it’s his responsibility to find out why the system failed and to fix it.

Today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered this, by way of context.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: The president has taken actions to deal with a whole set of crises that he had when he came in. He understands that. He had to make a lot of tough decisions that may or may not be politically popular, because that was what he was faced with. But, again, he that’s why he ran for the job. And, when you’re president, there are very few easy decisions.

JIM LEHRER: Now: three perspectives on President Obama and the Christmas bombing crisis in particular.

Walter Russell Mead is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the author of several books on U.S. diplomacy. Jessica Tuchman Mathews is the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And Dan Balz is national political correspondent for The Washington Post.

Dan, conventional wisdom seems to be that this Christmas bombing scare was President Obama’s first test in governing. Do you buy that?

DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Well, I don’t know that it’s the first test in governing. Certainly, having to deal with the recession and trying to get a health care bill through have been major tests of his governing.

But, in terms of international policy, this was one of those crisis moments that presents itself to every president, that 3:00 a.m. phone call, if you will. And I think that a lot of people have looked at his handling of it and his performance of it through that prism.

JIM LEHRER: Should they?

DAN BALZ: Yes, they should. I mean, I think it’s a legitimate way to try to judge a president, in a moment like this.

And I think that the initial reaction, certainly, by the White House was kind of a classic case of a White House on vacation, when everybody’s in far-flung places and not quite on the balls of their feet. And I think that they recovered from that, and you have seen the president increasingly stern and robust in his public comments since then.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead, how do you see the — the seriousness of this particular test and how it applies to President Obama’s abilities to handle this kind of thing?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Council on Foreign Relations: I don’t think it was a real serious test. A serious test would be if a bomb went off in a plane.

In some ways, I think Obama at the Copenhagen conference really showed himself performing in a much more stressful situation, where he took a conference that was falling apart and he mastered the dynamics. He got off the script and he really made — you know, made some positive steps forward.

But I agree that the White House had a little bit of a deer in the headlights of an oncoming truck for maybe 36 hours after this. And my guess is, the next time something like this happens — this is a very disciplined White House — they will do a better job.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think that too much has been made of this? Is that what you’re suggesting?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I would say you have got to look at it in context.

It’s a missed opportunity. It’s a mistake. It’s something — let’s say, if it happens again on something like this, then I think you have got to ask some questions, why aren’t they learning? But, if you look at this whole first year of the White House, in foreign policy, sure, there have been some mistakes, but, on the whole, this has been a much smoother first year for the operation of foreign policy than, say, the Clinton administration was or the Bush administration.

The team has more or less worked together. They haven’t been kind of thrown off-message. They have had some policy initiatives that aren’t working as well as they would like, but that happens to everybody. On the whole, when you look at a first year of a new administration, where the party’s been out of power for a long time, this has been a pretty smooth operation. That said, the Christmas bombing was not their finest hour.

JIM LEHRER: You agree, Jessica Mathews, not their finest moment?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS, president, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Yes. I think Walter got it precisely right on all counts.

He — it was unfortunate that Secretary Napolitano started the coverage on exactly the wrong footing — “The system worked” — and it was all recovery from then. And the more the president got into the facts, the stronger and stronger he became, culminating with yesterday’s announcements, where I think he really did a very strong performance.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think it’s legitimate to raise this — to use the word crisis in terms of the presidency of Barack Obama right now?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: No.

I mean, this president has faced nothing but crises in a much more profound sense. He came into office with the worst international inbox since Harry Truman. He had a domestic economy just plummeting towards the bottom, where the economists didn’t — couldn’t feel a bottom, had a global economic threat, and a frozen global financial system, and a war that was spiraling downhill as well. Those are real crises.

And the fact that, particularly on the economic front, that they handled them, I think, very, very strongly, and the fact that we’re all — we’re hardly even talking about it now is testimony to how well they did.

JIM LEHRER: Dan, another rap, as you know, on the president is that he tends to, when in doubt, make a speech, rather than a decision. Is that legit?

DAN BALZ: Well, up to a point. I mean, I think it’s certainly a line of argument that some of his critics have used.

The truth is, he has been, through the campaign, as we saw him as a candidate, and as president, somebody who can rise to the moment of a big speech. And he has given memorable speeches. I think one of the things they have learned is that there are limits to that, that the bully pulpit may not be as strong as some people might think, and that there is more to it than simply giving the speech.

But I think you saw in the deliberations over Afghanistan, a situation in which the president took a lot of criticism throughout that process of whether he was dithering or delaying or indecisive, but ultimately came to a conclusion that drew bipartisan praise and support, not just for the speech, but for the decision he reached.

Now, again, we don’t know how that policy will work in practice, but the way he dealt with it, I think, says that he is willing to do more than just give speeches.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Walter Mead, you, on the — we will get back to the speech thing in a moment, but what about the point that Dan just raised? The president has now said, I’m going to — going back to the bombing crisis for a moment, the president has now said, we’re going to — you know, I won’t tolerate this anymore, we have got to change things, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Now things have to really change, correct? Is that the real test, is yet to come?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, look, here’s the problem. When you’re fighting in a defensive action against a terrorist enemy, they can always choose their moments to attack and they can change their tactics and they will surprise you.

And the president probably has gone a little too far in saying, I’m going to make this work and the changes we’re going to make are going to make all the problems go away.

The reality is, they won’t. Unfortunately, there is a significant possibility, even perhaps a probability, that, at some time in the next few years, terrorists are going to succeed in something on the U.S. mainland, and that’s just a reality. Any administration’s going to be blamed for it, probably a little irrationally.

But this president does have the kind of — I wrote about this in the current Foreign Policy — almost a Jimmy Carter problem. He’s an intellectual. He’s a very thoughtful guy. He is trying to pull America back from confrontation. And to try to lower the tone of American rhetoric, to try to take the crisis out of something, as a way of reducing the country’s risks and vulnerabilities.

Whenever you start doing that, you are — people start to question you. Are you weak? And this president is going to be caught — is going to have a hard time avoiding being trapped, in a way, between a rock and a hard place of being so tough that he can’t try the new creative foreign policy that he wants, but, on the other hand, maybe being seen as weak or indecisive. It’s going to be a problem for him.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, he’s been anything but indecisive. And he is — I think what’s really noticeable is that he’s taken such big risks. Copenhagen…

JIM LEHRER: Too big? Too big, sometimes?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: He may have taken on more than the United States Senate can bear, for example, but I don’t know how he could have done less than deal with health care, than deal with the economy. He had to do those things.

He’s put on the table some major arms control initiatives and raised the possibility of zero nukes, which makes his near-term challenges even tougher. He’s told the Congress that it has to deal with climate, with energy, and that’s going to be an enormous difficulty in this coming year.

But the fact that he went to Copenhagen was a huge role of the dice, particularly because Congress hadn’t acted. And the low-risk strategy would have been not to go, and then other heads of state would not have gone.

The fact that he set out to reset the U.S.-Russian relationship was another high-risk roll of the dice. The engagement with Iran was a high-risk roll of the dice. Going to Cairo and giving that speech in the heart of the Arab world was a high roll of the dice. So, he has been somebody who has embraced a very….

JIM LEHRER: Taking risks?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: … very challenging policies.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Where do you — do you buy Walter’s Jimmy Carter rock and a hard place theory?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: No, I don’t.

JIM LEHRER: No? You don’t.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I see a very different man, and I think a much — taking on tough issues is not the same thing as being indecisive.

And the notion that you’re — that giving speeches is somehow not decision-making, I mean, he has made policy in those speeches. And…

JIM LEHRER: No, I was just — Walter didn’t say that. Yes, Walter didn’t. I said that in asking Dan the question.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, it’s fair — fair enough.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: But I think his — what he has embraced is — I mean, we — I think we remember President Carter in the context of the Iranian hostage crisis.

And it didn’t look quite that way at the time that he was going — that it was undertaking. But, also, as Walter also said, this has been a much smoother first year than President Carter’s first year.

JIM LEHRER: Walter, you want to come back on that?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Yes.

I don’t want to say, you know, Barack Obama is the new Jimmy Carter, because they’re very different people and the world situation is different. I just say he — the course that he’s trying to execute exposes him to risks of how he’s being perceived. And I think you can see that in some of the criticism.

Jessica’s right, that he’s taken on tremendous issues at home and abroad. So far, he’s had, I think, more success in working particularly with Congress than President Carter did early on. But we can see that these — you know, these high — President Bush took a lot of risks, too. These risks don’t — rolling the dice and then rolling the doubling cube and double or nothing, it doesn’t always work.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: And one of the problems, as you can see now, is, if you look at public support for the health care bill, it’s actually lower than public support for the surge in Afghanistan.

And when you have a very long, inconclusive war being more popular than a — what ought to be a very popular domestic initiative, then I think you do see an administration that’s heading into rough political seas.

I’m not predicting how it’s going to come out. I don’t think we can know. And Barack Obama is one of the most talented and far-seeing people we have elected president in quite a while. So, who knows what’s going to happen, but it is a stormy sea.

JIM LEHRER: All right, speaking of the stormy sea, Dan, how do you read the simple fact, at least according to the polls, that the critics that are coming after Barack Obama are coming off very strongly from the left and very strongly from the right at the same time?

Is that to be expected, or is there something unusual that you see there that you can explain to us?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think it’s two different phenomenon, Jim.

Going back to Walter’s point about Jimmy Carter, I think that the challenge that Barack Obama has faced and continues to face is one that was part of the narrative of the campaign that he had to overcome, which was this question of, did someone with the limited amount of experience that he had, was he going to be able to govern in a very dangerous world, and would he have the strength to be a strong commander in chief?

He passed that threshold, obviously, in the campaign. That’s different than passing it as president. And I think there will always be some suspicion, particularly on the right, about whether he has the equipment to do that.

We are in a much more polarized environment today than we were certainly back in Jimmy Carter’s day. We all know that. And I think that’s one of the reasons that he will continue to face that kind of criticism. And, so, there’s kind of almost a hair trigger in terms of everything he does, it gets examined very, very closely.

So, he has that challenge that he has to deal with. The challenges or the criticism that he’s getting from the left, I think, are in part a function of a kind of a disappointment. Disillusionment is too strong a word. But he is a victim in some ways of expectations that ran way beyond what he was able to do or could be expected to do.

There are people on the left who, because of his big victory a little more than a year ago, thought that things would change and change very quickly, and that they would change in a very progressive way on policy.

Now, many of the things that he is pushing have been and continue to be near and dear to the liberals’ agenda. But he is prepared to compromise to get some of those things through, the public option in the health care bill being perhaps the most symbolically significant of those.

And when he does those things, there is disappointment on the left, and so he gets criticized in that way.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Well, in a word, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, do you agree that — about the expectations thing? We just have a few seconds.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: They were unrealistically high. There’s no question.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Yes.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: There was a feeling that, somehow, he could make magic. And not even Barack Obama can make magic.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Thank you, all three, very much.