The Obama administration claim that “the system worked” after a failed aircraft bombing wasn’t quite as jolting as President George W. Bush’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” while New Orleans sank under deadly Hurricane Katrina. But both raised disturbing questions about presidential response in a time of crisis.
Bush’s praise for his beleaguered FEMA director, Michael Brown, came while storm evacuees remained trapped in the Louisiana Superdome and victims’ bloated bodies floated in the streets. It became a clarion call for all his administration did wrong during the 2005 calamity — and a larger symbol of all that people disliked generally about Bush.
Obama is dealing with a crisis of a different sort, Friday’s attempt by a 23-year-old Nigerian to blow up a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam. It ended with only a quickly extinguished fire, no lives lost and the man in custody.
Still, the close call prompted alarm about government performance.
• How did airport security, improved at much cost after the 2001 terrorist attacks, miss the bomber’s concealed explosives?
• How did the terrorist watch list system allow Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to keep his American tourist visa and avoid extra flight screening despite his father telling authorities his concerns about the younger man’s radicalization?
• Why didn’t Abdulmutallab’s lack of luggage, and cash purchase for an international flight, raise suspicions?
• Why was the plot thwarted only by an apparent explosive malfunction and fellow passengers’ quick action?
Amid those questions, administration officials’ repeated statements that “the system worked” were jarring. They made it sound like the administration doesn’t get it, like it is paying too much attention to political fallout and too little to public fears.
Officials insist the assertion, made by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs Sunday on television talk shows, referred only to heightened security procedures scrambled into place after the incident.
They say it is being purposely taken out of context by partisans playing politics with near-disaster.
They note Obama ordered two reviews, of the nation’s multilayered terrorist watch list system and of airport security procedures, something he clearly wouldn’t do if he believed there were no flaws.
Gibbs and Napolitano also were hoping, with the busy holiday travel season still in full force, to instill confidence in air safety.
“The system worked,” Napolitano declared on CNN during questioning about the lapses. Gibbs used nearly the same language on CBS, saying that “in many ways, this system has worked,” without elaborating.
Later that same day, Napolitano put it differently on ABC, saying “once the incident occurred, the system worked.” She tried again on Monday, saying in a round of TV interviews that “our system did not work in this instance. No one is happy or satisfied with that.”
But the damage was done.
Members of Congress — Republicans, but some Democrats too — were incredulous that “the system worked” was used in any context to describe what happened. “It is insulting that the Obama administration would make such a claim,” Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee — who is running for governor in Michigan — said in a campaign e-mail.
Republican Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl on Tuesday criticized President Barack Obama and his administration’s response following the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound airliner. McCain said Obama should have addressed the nation earlier about the botched attack. Kyl said he now doesn’t feel “totally safe” with Napolitano as homeland security secretary.
Phrases do matter. Sometimes they come to take on a life of their own, with context and nuance forgotten, representing broader beliefs or fears.
For Bush, the “heckuva job” comment more than four years into his presidency fit into an already well-developed critical narrative, that he was loyal to lieutenants to a fault and hands-off on even important matters. It stuck.
For Obama, still short of one year in office, his narrative, critical or otherwise, isn’t set yet.
Nonetheless, rumblings keep resurfacing about emotional distance, even coldness. Whether it’s Wall Street bonuses or terrorist near-disaster, people wonder whether he feels as they do or ever acts out of passion. The comment may well stick.
And it isn’t the only part of Obama’s response that drew criticism.
Until Monday, the president had not been heard from publicly since the Christmas Day scare. He was ordering after-action reviews behind the scenes, but also enjoying his Hawaiian vacation with games of golf, basketball and tennis.
He also drew questions by not getting his first briefing on the incident until two hours after it was all over — and then only for 15 minutes, when he departed for the gym.
Aides defended the low-key approach as designed to not give the attempted attack undue presidential attention and perhaps encourage other terrorists.
Regardless, on Monday, the White House shifted strategy.
Napolitano was sent out to clarify the Sunday comments.
And Obama — still the administration’s best, some say only, fixer — decided to talk to the public himself. It has been a pattern for Obama: letting a situation unfurl out of his control while underlings attempt to manage it, then swooping back into the lead role, usually successfully. It happened with the hated financial industry bailout and this summer’s health care debate. And now this.
Benefiting from not being the one who made the initial damaging remarks, Obama added his own words, a mix of calm, urgency and resolve. “We will do everything in our power to protect our country,” he said.
Obama then spoke again Tuesday, showing much more heat at the lapses on his second go-round. “A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable,” he declared.
Late in Obama’s White House run, now-Vice President Joe Biden caused campaign headaches by saying his young, relatively inexperienced running mate would, if elected, face international crisis early on from those eager “to test the mettle of this guy.”
With the first year not over, that test is here.
Jennifer Loven has covered the White House for The Associated Press since 2002.
Associated Press writer Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.