The uproar over whether President Obama or another top administration official should have attended the massive unity rally in Paris has obscured an important point about the White House's reaction to the latest terror attacks in Europe. The administration no-shows were not a failure of optics, or a diplomatic misstep, but were instead the logical result of the president's years-long effort to downgrade the threat of terrorism and move on to other things.
"The analogy we use around [the White House] sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant," Obama told the New Yorker magazine in a January 2014 interview. The president was referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria but was also suggesting in a broader sense that a number of post-9/11 offshoot terrorist organizations aren't worth the sort of war-footing mobilization that took place in the George W. Bush years.
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Seven months earlier, Obama made an extended case for downgrading the terrorist threat in a May 23, 2013, speech at the National Defense University. He mentioned al Qaeda 24 times in the speech and argued that America's victory over the organization behind 9/11 was nearly complete.
"Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat," Obama said. "Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us."
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Yes, there will be threats in the future, Obama acknowledged, but they will be smaller. "We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11."
The implication of Obama's speech was that Americans must live with a certain level of threat, as long as it does not approach 9/11 levels, and otherwise just move on.
Meanwhile, the White House from nearly the beginning of the president's term made clear it did not want to refer to Islamic jihad as either Islamic or jihad. In 2010, a New York Times article noted that top White House officials "have made a point of disassociating Islam from terrorism in public comments, using the phrase 'violent extremism' in place of words like 'jihad' and 'Islamic terrorism.' "
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Obama's supporters, weary of Bush's focus on terrorism and eager to tackle a variety of domestic issues, cheered the president on. After the Defense University speech, the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson wrote, "President Obama wisely avoided the phrase 'mission accomplished' in his major speech last week about the 'war on terror,' but columnists aren't obliged to be so circumspect: It is time to declare victory and get on with our lives."
Fast forward to January 2015. The attackers at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris would undoubtedly qualify as JV-level terrorists under Obama's new classification. But their work was enough to shock Europe and motivate more than a million people to gather behind dozens of heads of state at the unity rally Sunday.
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Is that what getting on with our lives means?
The White House reaction to the attacks in France, going back to the first reports of shots fired at Charlie Hebdo, has been noticeably subdued. Obama had scheduled last week as a time to roll out some upcoming State of the Union proposals in trips to Michigan, Arizona and Tennessee. When world events intruded, the president stubbornly stuck to his schedule, mentioning France only briefly before introducing his plan for free tuition at community colleges.
Then came the unity march. No, it was not essential that Obama himself attend. But there's no doubt he should have sent Vice President Joe Biden — why is there a VP, if not to go to big foreign events? — or at least Secretary of State John Kerry.
Even as the march wound its way through Paris, the White House sent out yet another sign of its unseriousness. On Sunday morning, the press office announced the president will host a "Summit on Countering Violent Extremism" on Feb. 18. The plan is to bring together "social service providers, including education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders, with law enforcement agencies to address violent extremism as part of the broader mandate of community safety and crime prevention."
As the world watched images of black-clad, AK-47-wielding terrorists killing Parisians, Obama proposed to meet the threat with social service providers.
So when the president chose not to attend the Paris march, nor to send the Vice President or Secretary of State, the problem wasn't a tin-ear sense of public relations. It was Obama's actual attitude toward the terror threat facing not only Europe but the United States. We've dealt with the big stuff, Obama has declared, now let's move on.
It sounded good — until the bullets started flying.