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?

The Big Man. President Obama's picks are safe and edgy, smart and sometimes meh.
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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