- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2010


The Christmas Day bombing attempt in Detroit has set off the usual barrage of blame throwing. Republicans accuse the Obama administration of not taking terrorism seriously. Democrats say the cause is President Bush and his policies.

But the squabbling will mean nothing in the long run. President Obama will get a political boost from the would-be bombing as long as another domestic attack doesn’t happen anytime soon and he makes a convincing show of fixing the nation’s broken security system.

That’s the way Washington works.

Americans have only one place to turn when an external enemy threatens their safety - the nation’s capital and the politicians in charge there. The commander in chief becomes a much more important figure no matter who he is or what party he comes from.

As long as he doesn’t stumble or appear to hesitate too much, the president will get credit from voters for carrying out his most basic function - protecting the homeland.

The pattern is well established.

President Bush’s job approval ratings were nothing to brag about in the autumn of his first year in office. But they zoomed in the wake of the tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, because, after only a brief delay, he acted decisively to repel the al Qaeda menace that had orchestrated the horrific attacks in New York and Washington.

Mr. Bush maintained that momentum right through the presidential election of 2004 and was sent back to the White House as a result. He managed this partly because Sen. John Kerry’s claim to be a credible commander in chief was undercut by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and partly because Mr. Bush didn’t need to prove his credibility in the position.

He already was commander in chief and at a time of war.

Now Mr. Obama can lay claim to the same position. And so far, he’s making up for lost time and embracing the role.

Early in his first year in office, Mr. Obama looked as though he might cede the advantage - call it the “Rally Around the Flag” effect - which comes when the country is under duress from violent extremists.

He also took his sweet time deciding how to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a delay that labeled him a ditherer on the topic of anti-terrorism. Earlier on, some members of his administration appeared to flirt with the idea of downplaying terrorism as an significant issue. An internal memo even suggested that the words “global war on terrorism” should be replaced with “Overseas Contingency Operation.”

Like his predecessor, Mr. Obama was also slow to speak out about the actions he would take to counter the danger. He allowed others, especially Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, to take the lead after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was arrested for trying to blow up a plane bound for Detroit from Amsterdam.

On the Sunday after the Nigerian was arrested, Ms. Napolitano made the mistake of suggesting, even in a limited sense, that the system had worked well. Clearly, it had not.

But the president has since made several pointed, public statements that put the situation where it belongs - among the nation’s highest priorities. His remarks yesterday were just the latest of what will be a series of serious steps, White House and congressional aides say.

He has tightened security procedures and, after admitting failures in his administration, demanded a thorough examination into what went wrong. Clearly,national security has joined job creation and health reform among Mr. Obama’s top concerns in the new year.

That will pay him dividends almost no matter what he specifically does to improve the country’s safety.

Democrats have long had a hard time besting Republicans on foreign policy and military-related issues. That barely matters in the scheme of things, of course. Life-and-death questions should not be demeaned by putting them into a partisan context.

But in Washington, everything is demeaned in that way. So here’s the view from that perspective, like it or not:

Thus far, the president’s approval ratings have not recovered from the more-or-less steady slide they’ve experienced since last spring. This is due mostly to the stubbornly weak economy (for which he is blamed rightly or wrongly) and the doubts voiced by many Americans about health reform (for which he surely can be blamed).

But he has already begun to help himself by ratcheting up his administration’s efforts to squelch the terrorist threat. He might even find more support among the public for his war in Afghanistan if he ties his bolstered efforts in that country to his determination to prevent another Christmas Day disaster.

Through little effort of his own, the president could well benefit from what is otherwise very bad news.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Times and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

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