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The limits of “cool”

Byron York notes that some Obama defenders are circulating articles from the Huffington Post and Politico arguing that President Obama is being subjected to a double standard of criticism for his handling of the Detroit terrorism incident. This claim is based on the fact that, as Politico’s Josh Gerstein notes, when shoe-bomber Richard Reid struck on December 22, 2001, “it was six days before President George W. Bush, then on vacation, made any public remarks…and there were virtually no complaints from the press or any opposition Democrats that his response was sluggish or inadequate.” Yet despite what Gerstein calls striking similarities between the Reid case and the Detroit incident, Obama has become the target of “withering” criticism from Republicans and some in the press.
As I suggested last night, some of the criticism of Obama’s reaction to the Christmas bombing attempt seems somewhat unfair. I don’t think it matters, for example, that Obama wasn’t wearing a tie when he spoke about the incident. Nor does it bother me that he continues to play golf during his vacation. If I thought that curtailing his vacation plans would induce Obama to send the would-be bomber to Gitmo, I’d be in favor of the curtailment. But that’s not in the cards. (Bush did not send Reid to a special facility — apparently that option hadn’t been devised yet — but Jose Padilla later was sent to one).
On the other hand, team Obama appears to have brought some of the excessive scrutiny of the president’s atmospherics on itself. Administration spokesmen fed sympathetic media types like Marc Ambinder and Anne Kornblut the theme that Obama intentionally played it cool by calibrating his response to the attempted Christmas bombing, so as to keep the public calm (or something). Thus, it isn’t terribly unfair to criticize the president’s apparently studied response if one considers it inappropriate.
More fundamentally, as Byron explains, Obama’s conduct has raised questions about his commitment to preventing terrorism that simply didn’t exist when it came to President Bush. The war on terrorism (a phrase Obama tellingly refuses to use) presents numerous decision-points that require a president to strike a balance between maximizing the assault on terrorists and their plans and maximizing civil liberites. Obama and Bush differ as to where the correct balance lies, with Obama believing it lies further on the civil liberties side than Bush did.
Thus, Byron is correct when he argues that, at the time Reid was captured, there was little if any doubt that Bush “was serious about using all the powers of the U.S. government to strike back at the terrorists.” This is not the case with Obama, and it is that reality, rather than a “double standard,” that explains why “there are so many questions about the president’s handling of the Detroit incident.”

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