“The peaceful transfer of authority is rare in history, yet common in our country. With a simple oath, we affirm old traditions and make new beginnings.” – George W. Bush
President George W. Bush was in a Florida elementary school reading The Pet Goat with some second-graders on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the hijacked planes hit the twin towers. He was quickly shuffled out of the room and onto Air Force One. Bush wanted to return to D.C., but security concerns won out and he flew out over the Gulf of Mexico, and then to the Midwest. Eventually though, the president exercised “Commander-in Chief” authority and demanded to return to the capitol.
Why? Did it matter from a tactical standpoint that he be in the White House? No. The president is as fully connected as he needs to be aboard Air Force One. But it did matter. It mattered politically. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I mean, it mattered that he show the American people that he was on post, that he was back in the seat of power, that he wasn’t running and hiding, and that the government was responding to the new challenges we faced. These are all political concerns, and legitimate ones.
I bring this up because, over the weekend, several Obama aides took to the airwaves and political talking-head shows to defend the president over the various scandals facing the administration. One of the talking points was that it didn’t matter where Obama was while the Benghazi attacks were playing out – he was still connected and informed of the developments.
In a technical sense I would agree. The president can be connected wherever he is (and we spend a lot of money to ensure that this is true). But it matters politically. It sends a message to the American people if you are just hanging out around the residence instead of the situation room. It matters to the American people if you leave for a fundraiser the next morning before the situation has resolved. It matters – not tactically – but politically.
The president, of course, understands this. Recall when “hurricane” Sandy hit just before the 2012 election? The president cancelled political appearances and returned to the White House to “lead” through the “crisis”. (I use the “scare quotes” here because Sandy was a rather weak storm. BUT, when a weak storm meets a region with aging and decrepit infrastructure, you can get some serious damage.)
It mattered then where the president was during a crisis. It mattered politically – and that one I do mean in a derogatory sense. It mattered for his re-election campaign. He needed the American people to see him as a leader in crisis.
So no, it doesn’t “matter” where the president was during Benghazi – but it does matter, politically. The biggest political risk from this situation has already passed – the president won re-election. But it still matters politically (if it didn’t his low-level aides wouldn’t be out defending him on weekend shows).