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Obama's Handling of Terror Threats: Inauguration Day and Today

The press has been bubbling with commentary on President Obama's handling of the "Christmas Bomber" incident to perhaps the same extent that the U.S. now seems to be bubbling with fresh Islamic extremist terror attempts.

We might have imagined that the election of Barack Obama marked the beginning of a new era, hinged on a renovation of America's approach to the world, which would be reciprocated. And the president was "blessed" with an economy that in our panic seemed to be more deadly than terrorists' bombs. We were wrong on both counts.

The New York Times, true to recent Times tradition, was not the first to weigh in on the debate, but proved to do so with the most words. Peter Baker's eight-click article (it's nine pages online) in the New York Times Magazine begins by describing Obama's first presidential encounter with the threat of terrorism: His inauguration. Baker writes that an emergency limo-meeting was called when intelligence officials pieced together data indicating a Somali plot to kill the soon-to-be president or launch an attack on his inauguration ceremony.

"The threat seemed to weigh on Obama," Baker writes. "He canceled a practice session to go over his inaugural address with aides at Blair House."

Baker goes on to quote David Axelrod, who said, "[Mr. Obama] seemed more subdued than he had been." President Obama was understandably affected, but perhaps more interesting, he altered his plans and appeared "subdued" in reacting to the possible threat.

President Obama was not the first American president to deal with inauguration-day terror concerns. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president just days after his predecessor, William McKinley, was killed by an anarchist terrorist. There was grave concern among many that the former rough-riding vice president would be next.

Roosevelt felt the impact of the threat as well, as would anyone stepping into the shoes of a dead man. His response, however, was completely in character: he tried to dismiss his police guard. When they refused to go away, he insisted on keeping as much distance from his bodyguards as possible as he met in a public park with his top adviser.

The Christian Science Monitor sniffed out the Teddy comparison in an article that asks, "How tough is Obama on Terror?" CSM goes on to consider whether President Obama's mixed response to terrorism isn't just his own version of speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

This cuts to the question the media - and the American public - are really asking: Does President Obama really carry a big stick? The Washington Post chimes in on the matter with an almost weepy editorial on the slack that the president is not getting from Republicans. The Post argues that President Obama has used forceful language, citing his Nobel Peace Prize speech in which he noted that we're at war with "a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." True enough, but Obama's decision to leave that enemy unnamed, or unidentified, is what's causing current head-scratching in the media and nail-biting in American homes.

President Roosevelt, who was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (though in his case, after making peace) told the nation and told the world, "Anarchy is a crime against the whole human race, and all mankind should band together against the Anarchist. His crimes should be made a crime against the law of nations..."

Roosevelt was fighting a different animal than President Obama, but like our president, Roosevelt faced a nebulous, international threat that didn't properly belong to any single country. That threat, for this reason, needed to be named and clearly identified so it could be hunted everywhere.

America is now hunting, and has twice been reminded of the Yemen-terror connection. Ali Soufan, one of the country's top experts on terror - and one of the few FBI agents fluent in Arabic and Arab culture working in the Bureau on September 11, 2001 - published a New York Times op-ed in which he argues that despite the rude Christmas surprise, Yemen is nothing new as the country has been a major Islamist terror stable for decades.

That brings us back to President Obama, who ordered an airstrike strike on Yemen a week before the Christmas terror attempt. It can't be said that the president doesn't have his finger on the pulse. But there is a question, a relatively smaller, strategic question, about whether he's doing enough, and doing it fast enough. Further, there's also a much larger philosophic question about governance - in this case about balancing the desire to not offend with the bottom-line need to defend. It's the big stick question everyone is asking.

As much as a president's character is connected to the way he governs (which, it seems from history, is a lot), comparing President Obama's response to his inauguration day terror threat with Theodore Roosevelt's might help answer this question. The question, of course, will only fully be answered by Obama's future actions. In the meantime, Roosevelt's operating dictum -- which he borrowed from an African proverb -- should be remembered: "If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble; but neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power."

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