President Obama's problem right now is not that he is "weak on defense"—the hoary (and in his case easily discredited) attack line Republicans have been using on Democrats since 1972. The risk he faces with voters is the perception that his administration is, well, "dumb."
I use the word advisedly. You may remember the speech Obama gave in 2002, the one that launched him toward the presidency. The burden of the speech, the nascent promise of Obama, was that he would be really smart and that his intellect and skill would make America safer than the brutish ignorance of the men then in charge of fighting Al Qaeda. "I don't oppose all wars," he said. "What I am opposed to is a dumb war." He went on to explain why invading Iraq would be a mistake. "That's what I am opposed to: a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics."
In the years after 2002, especially after his brilliantly constructed and technically superb campaign, voters came to accept his argument that he was both strong and smart, and that therefore he would be able to handle not only tough domestic problems, but terrorists as well. But the Christmas bomber's near success produced the picture of an administration that was as almost as deaf, dumb, and blind—in its own technocratic way—as the blunderbuss Bushies who preceded it.
You know the litany: a terrorist ratted out in advance by his own father; known to be a threat from human and electronic intelligence; pays cash for a luggageless one-way ticket to martyrdom. It was that chain of events—and the image of incompetence and stupidity it yielded—that Obama is now urgently trying to apologize for and erase. In a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with his security and intelligence team, and in a grim report to the American people from the White House, he admitted the obvious ("the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way") while attempting to salvage his reputation as a brainy and tough leader.
The weakness exposed by the would-be bomber, he said, was a "failure to integrate" all or even any of the alarming information the government already had in its possession about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. It was a failure of intelligence, he said, that "I will not accept and I will not tolerate."
Finding a way out of this political thicket won't be easy. This, after all, is "No Drama Obama." But there is going to have to be some drama. Here are five possibilities, and the pros and cons of each:
Fire some people. Somebody somewhere had to have screwed up, and if Obama wants to show that he is both smart and tough, he needs to find the weakest links in the chain and make an example of them. The risk is that it could engender the kind of internecine warfare that Obama, both as a candidate and a president, has so far avoided.
Blame Bush. It was the previous administration, not this one, that released Guantánamo detainees back into the wild in Yemen. It was the previous administration, not this one, that largely ignored Yemen for years. The risk for Obama is that he has used (overused) the blame-Bush trope for a year on the economy, the bank bailouts, and virtually every other topic that comes up. It's losing its potency.
Reconfigure the bureaucracy. More than eight after 9/11, it may well be time to take another look at the monstrously complex array of agencies and departments involved in security, intelligence, and defense. Obama loves complexity, but even he has to be chagrined by the mess he inherited. If he is so smart—and he is—perhaps he needs to reduce the number of boxes on the flowchart from several dozen to a few. The risk in doing so is clear: he will be accused of being just another bureaucratically obsessed Beltway guy (the very person he promised not to be), and the ensuing turf battles would become an all-consuming preoccupation of the White House.
Profiling. Don't say that Obama isn't moving in this direction: he is. Pat-downs at airports are now being administered not only to travelers from countries officially considered "state sponsors of terrorism," but also from 10 "other countries of interest" that are of interest for one reason: they are mostly Muslim countries. The risk abroad in going further is clear: we look like racists and bigots. The political risk at home is more subtle: Obama's whole identity is about tolerance.
Don't allow airlines to sell one-way, luggageless cash tickets to anyone, from anywhere, ever again. Not immediately implementing this policy is, well, dumb.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country .