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The limits of “calibration”

For the most part, the first year of the Obama administration has proceeded about as I expected it to. The president has been a bit less aggressive in pushing a liberal domestic agenda and a bit more aggressive in promoting an America-effacing foreign policy than I thought he would be. However, the deviation from expectations has not been significant.
Perhaps the single biggest surprise for me is the emerging sense, in the aftermath of the Christmas bombing attempt, that the administration has become so complacent when it comes to preventing acts of terrorism. Some complacency is natural as 9/11 recedes. But I thought Obama would have understood that the fastest way his presidency could unravel is through a successful instance of major terrorism in which his government failed to connect the dots. Thus, I initially expected the administration, quietly and behind the scenes, vigorously to promote dot collecting and dot connecting.
It is possible that the administration has been doing this. One major failure to connect the dots doesn’t prove the government has been asleep at the switch. But that’s the impression one gets, and it is reinforced by the clueless comments of our homeland security chief and (perhaps somewhat unfairly) by the seeming lack of urgency in Obama’s initial reaction to the incident.
Obama remains one lucky son-of-a-gun, however. Because the Christmas terrorist was thwarted, the “catastrophic breach of security” did not result in an actual catastrophe. If it had, Obama’s presidency would probably be unraveling. Since it didn’t, the incident is likely to blow over. Conservative voters will be outraged at the president (as many already are) and centrist and center-left voters will think a bit less of him. But his presidency will not be damaged appreciably.
The real question is whether Obama will learn anything from this experience. I’m not optimistic.
I keep reading about how Obama wanted to “calibrate” his response to the incident. That’s not encouraging. It points to a deeper urge to calibrate our response to the threat of terrorism itself, which I think is the source of the problem. In Obama’s mind, calibration probably means not overreacting to threats to the point that we unnecessarily trample on civil liberties, a commendable sentiment and one that seems central to Obama’s self-image (it’s the cousin of the sentiment that, in Obama’s preferred narrative, formed the basis for his opposition to the war in Iraq when many of his fellow liberals “lost their heads”). But in practice, calibration ends up meaning that the bureaucracy keeps an eye on terrorist threats but doesn’t work very seriously at it.
This seems to be where we’ve been and I’m guessing it’s where we’ll remain once this episode blows over. Let’s hope that Obama’s luck, and ours, holds up.
JOHN adds: The most striking fact about Barack Obama is his astonishing luck. If there is a luckier man on the face of the earth, I’d like to meet him. That’s worrisome because no one can be lucky forever. It’s hard to avoid a foreboding that Obama’s run of good fortune will inevitably come crashing down in some horrible catastrophe. The problem is, he’s the President; so his catastrophe will be ours, too.

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