Would We Rally Behind Obama After the Next 9/11?

We may never get hit again. But if we did, would the next president find unity fleeting?

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National Journal
Ron Fournier
Aug. 11, 2014, 2:37 a.m.

Thir­teen years ago this month, Pres­id­ent George W. Bush was va­ca­tion­ing at his Texas ranch when his daily brief­ing in­cluded a memo titled, “Bin Laden De­term­ined to Strike in the U.S.” Al-Qaida struck a month later, and the na­tion was at war. No memos are needed today.

IS­IS is com­mu­nic­at­ing dir­ectly to Pres­id­ent Obama via the In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia. “The Is­lam­ic Ca­liphate has been es­tab­lished,” the spokes­man, Abu Mosa, said Fri­day, vow­ing to “raise the flag of Al­lah in the White House.”

After dis­miss­ing IS­IS as al-Qaida’s “JV” team last fall, the pres­id­ent has awakened to the blood­curd­ling threat. Last week, he ordered air strikes and air drops in north­ern Ir­aq to pre­vent gen­o­cide and to pro­tect U.S. as­sets. The CIA is re­portedly arm­ing Kur­ds to fight the emer­ging Is­lam­ic state. The world is fo­cused on wheth­er the United States needs to do more, des­pite the re­luct­ance of Obama and most Amer­ic­ans to re­com­mit troops.

But I can’t shake an­oth­er, dark­er, ques­tion. What if we get hit again with a 9/11-sized at­tack? More to the point, hy­po­thet­ic­ally, would a crisis pull us to­geth­er or drive us apart? It’s a mor­bid ques­tion worth ask­ing be­fore the worst hap­pens, be­cause there’s reas­on to worry about the dur­ab­il­ity of what Lin­coln called “the bet­ter an­gels of our nature.”

What can we learn from the Bush era? Well, the na­tion im­me­di­ately ral­lied be­hind the fledgling pres­id­ent (Bush had been in of­fice only about sev­en months). Mem­bers of Con­gress fam­ously locked arms on the East Front steps of the Cap­it­ol and sang “God Bless Amer­ica.” Bush’s ap­prov­al rat­ings soared to 90 per­cent, as he ordered U.S. troops in­to Afgh­anistan to de­feat the Taliban and hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The kum­baya peri­od didn’t last long. Three months after the at­tacks, Demo­crats mildly ques­tioned parts of the USA Pat­ri­ot Act, and At­tor­ney Gen­er­al John Ash­croft said such ques­tions “erode our na­tion­al unity and di­min­ish our re­solve.” Time has proved the le­gis­la­tion to be ex­cess­ive.

Two months later, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Tom Daschle stepped up cri­ti­cism of Bush’s an­ti­ter­ror­ism policies. In re­sponse, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Tom Dav­is ac­cused the Demo­crat of “giv­ing aid and com­fort to our en­emies.” It was the start of a years-long strategy of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion to stoke and ex­ploit fears of a post-9/11 at­tack to en­hance the pres­id­ent’s stand­ing and de­fang Demo­crats.

The false front of bi­par­tis­an­ship crumbled in May of 2002 when the bin Laden memo leaked. Ac­cord­ing to a help­ful chro­no­logy com­piled by Dart­mouth Col­lege pro­fess­or Brendan Nyhan, Demo­crats de­man­ded to know what else Bush knew about the at­tacks be­fore­hand. White House spokes­man Dan Bart­lett said second-guess­ing is “ex­actly what our op­pon­ents, our en­emies, want us to do.”

The pat­tern was set for the rest of Bush’s term. Demo­crats seized on (and of­ten ex­ag­ger­ated) any morsel of evid­ence that un­der­mined Bush’s tough-on-ter­ror­ists im­age, and the White House seized on (and of­ten ex­ag­ger­ated) any de­vel­op­ment that un­der­scored its nar­rat­ive. The Bush team cre­ated a new story line by in­vad­ing Ir­aq based on evid­ence of weapons of mass de­struc­tion that was dis­tor­ted, hyped, and, in some cases, con­trived.

Bush’s ap­prov­al num­bers de­clined after 9/11, slowly and stead­ily. His rat­ing turned to pre-at­tack levels (about 50 per­cent) to­ward the end of 2003, and plummeted after his reelec­tion, when the wheels fell off the Ir­aq War and Hur­ricane Kat­rina hit New Or­leans.

What has oc­curred since 9/11 that might change the equa­tion for the next pres­id­ent to face such a crisis? In a word, plenty. First, so­cial me­dia gives ter­ror­ists dir­ect ac­cess to world lead­ers, the pub­lic, and po­ten­tial con­verts. When bin Laden was taunt­ing Amer­ica with grainy videos, Face­book was still three years away from its launch (2004), and Twit­ter would not come along for two more (2006).

Second, it may be easi­er to di­vide Amer­ica be­cause, well, we’re already more di­vided than in 2001. A wa­ter­shed study by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found that the per­cent­age of Amer­ic­ans who con­sist­ently ex­press con­ser­vat­ive or lib­er­al views has doubled over the past two dec­ades from 10 per­cent to 21 per­cent. The bulk of that sort­ing has oc­curred since the end of Bush’s first term.

Third, the Obama White House has proved to be self-gen­er­ous and ruth­less in its de­fense. When crit­ics said his re­fus­al to aid Syr­i­an rebels helped em­bolden IS­IS, Obama tartly called the ana­lys­is a “fantasy.” But it wasn’t just Re­pub­lic­ans who made the case against him. Obama’s former sec­ret­ary of State, Hil­lary Clin­ton, warmed up for a po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial bid by call­ing the Syr­ia policy a fail­ure.

Fourth, today’s Re­pub­lic­ans are look­ing for any ex­cuse to take on the pres­id­ent. Their base wants Obama im­peached. The House GOP has done everything in its power to block Obama’s agenda. And now they’re already test­ing postat­tack talk­ing points.

“I think of an Amer­ic­an city in flames be­cause of the ter­ror­ists’ abil­ity to op­er­ate in Syr­ia and Ir­aq,” Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wal­lace. “This is just not about Bagh­dad. This is just not about Syr­ia. This is about our home­land. And if we get at­tacked be­cause he has no strategy to pro­tect us, then he will have com­mit­ted a blun­der for the ages.”

After the 9/11 at­tacks, the na­tion united for sev­er­al months while Bush gained his foot­ing as a crisis man­ager and pre­pared to wage war. We may nev­er get hit that hard again. But if we do, one won­ders how long we would stand to­geth­er. Months or weeks? Days, maybe? Hours?

It’s a scary ques­tion, be­cause how we re­spond to an at­tack is al­most as im­port­ant as how we pre­vent one.

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