Every president sags at the finish line, weary, exhausted and tired of hearing himself trying to sound presidential. Barack Obama has at last discovered something he’s good at: He’s ahead of his predecessors, sagging early, three years out.
He’s boring everybody else, too. His presidential favorability ratings have fallen to 41 percent, which in the first year of a second term borders on dreadful. Ordinarily, a president in this situation can count on an occasional crisis, particularly one involving sending the Marines to an obscure foreign shore. If such an opportunity doesn’t fall on him, he may be tempted to invent one.
Mr. Obama needs a crisis, something dramatic and boiling with shot and shell, or at least the threat of fire and noise, something to make people forget politics as usual.
Bill Clinton complained to friends that he was deprived of a really big crisis, and was doomed to leave no legacy beyond the stains he left on little blue dresses and the jokes he gave to television’s late-night comics. No president wants to be the forgotten man, his legacy lost in the weeds. Gerald Ford was hardly president long enough to get his muffins out of the White House toaster. No one remembers anything about Chester Alan Arthur beyond the curiosity that he’s our only president with three Christian names and no known surname.
A really exciting crisis can relieve a fading presidency of irrelevance, particularly in the president’s own mind. President Obama, having suffered a grueling summer, beset with scandal and scam and beginning to hear restless whines in the White House kennel shared by Bo, his dog, and the lap dogs of the Washington press, might have been tempted to invent something scary to distract the public. We know he would never do anything like that; he’s from Chicago, after all.
But the great embassy-closing epidemic of the first of the dog days is beginning to give off a fragrance of spoiled fish, as in herrings, the red ones so esteemed for their ability to divert attention from scandal and incompetence. The White House insists the threat, whatever it was, was real, which is exactly what the White House would say. But the Washington analysts, some more polite than others and some slower of wit than others, are finally saying no. A senior government official in Yemen tells McClatchy newspapers that the White House claims of a foiled plot “have no basis in fact.” With a certain bemusement, he says the scare began as an attempt to divert attention from U.S. drone attacks, unpopular in the Middle East and growing more unpopular in the United States.
“It’s crazy pants,” says Will McCants, a senior analyst of U.S. relations with the Islamic world for Brookings Institution, “and you can quote me.” Other analysts, not necessarily as quotable as Mr. McCants, agree. But you don’t have to be an analyst or a pundit to detect the stale whiff of politics in the closing of the diplomatic stations.
There’s no shortage of things President Obama wants Americans not to think about: The continuing saga over the NSA leaks; the dread of Obamacare, now bearing down like a runaway train; the struggle over immigration reform; and the general air of incompetence, inefficiency and impotence hanging over the White House like a dark cloud bank on a late summer’s afternoon. So why not invoke the fear of another 9/11? It’s a short-term solution, but in the long run, there is no long run. Politicians understand that.
Muslims groove on anniversaries and iconic imagery. An attack on that particular Sunday would correspond to Mr. Obama’s birthday. It was the 15th anniversary of a terrorist attack on U.S. embassies in Africa. The month-long feast of Ramadan was ending. How better to celebrate than with a reprise of Sept. 11? The very questions make the warning about new attacks more credible, and raise the scare quotient considerably.
Threats of wholesale crisis and carnage in the Middle East are not new. The warnings the embassy shutdowns were based on were first reported to the White House months ago. The State Department has been on “heightened alert” for almost a year since the consulate in Benghazi was seized and U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens slain.
Maybe the threat was real, and the Islamist zealots delayed the attack to heighten suspense. Maybe those aren’t drones over Yemen, but pigs flying at last, in tight formation.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.