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President Grown-Up

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It's probably too soon to say whether Republicans' truly ridiculous attacks against President Obama on counter-terrorism are going to have an effect. The daily tracking polls haven't shown much of a shift as of yet, and much of the public is enjoying the holiday season and may not be fully engaged in the GOP talking points of the day.

Ideally, Americans would see through the baseless condemnations of the White House, and recognize them for what they are: petty, stupid, and easily debunked. But if public attitudes start to shift, and wrong-but-loud criticism undermines confidence in the administration's national security policies, there is an alternative strategy available.

Up until now, the president has chosen a mature, sensible approach to counter-terrorism. After learning of the failed Abdulmutallab plot, the White House reacted quickly with new security measures behind the scenes, with the president overseeing a carefully-crafted response. But publicly, the White House decided not to elevate the actions of a two-bit thug. President Obama signaled to the country that there was no reason to panic, and no need to give a new round of sought-after attention to a bunch of lunatics.

Republicans didn't care for that approach, and preferred a collective display of pants-wetting. GOP voices and the media decided the strategy to deny terrorists a symbolic public relations victory wasn't good enough -- this was a time for partisan grandstanding, not mature leadership.

Again, maybe Americans will find the president's approach compelling. They should; it's how leaders are supposed to operate. But at this point, it seems pretty obvious that the president acting like an adult is going over the political world's head.

There's apparently an expectation that the president can -- and probably should -- exploit incidents for as much political gain as possible. The Obama administration's track record on counter-terrorism is extremely impressive, but because officials don't dance in the end-zone after every successful operation, most Americans haven't heard about the success stories, and most political journalists still internalize the absurd notion that national security is a Republican "strength."

If the White House wanted to try a new approach, grandstanding opportunities are not uncommon. For example, when U.S. forces, acting on the president's orders, successfully took out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya and one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa, the president could have appeared before the cameras to explain, "Hey, look at me! I took out one of the world's most dangerous terrorists!"

When U.S. forces, acting on the president's orders, killed Baitullah Mehsud, the terrorist leader of the Taliban movement Pakistan, Obama could have assembled reporters to declare, "Booyah! Bush and Cheney only wish they had a record like mine!"

When the Obama administration took suspected terrorists Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, and Hosam Maher Husein Smadi into custody before they could launch their planned attacks, each of the success stories could have been accompanied by its own press conference, at which the president could proclaim, "Republicans' talk is cheap; I'm the one keeping Americans safe."

Of course, the administration preferred a more low-key approach in each instance. Obama has scored the kind of counter-terrorism victories that, if they'd come a couple of years ago, would have led the White House to release photos of Dick Cheney and Bill Kristol chest-bumping each other on the South Lawn, but this White House prefers to simply get the job done, not make a show of it.

The result, however, is that the media and the public don't necessarily know the counter-terrorism victories have even happened.

The president, by all appearances, finds shameless politicization of counter-terrorism offensive. And it is. But Republicans are running an aggressive misinformation scheme, and if it's effective, the White House may need to reconsider whether the public rewards or punishes leaders who act like grown-ups.

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