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Obama Politically Tone Deaf On TSA Outrage

President Obama spoke yesterday about the outrage that has swept the country over new TSA screening procedures, and his response strikes me as being incredibly non-responsive to the concerns that people have raised about procedures that many consider to be incredibly invasive:

President Barack Obama stood by new controversial screening measures Saturday, calling methods such as pat-downs and body scans necessary to assure airline safety.

Speaking at a NATO press conference in Lisbon, Portugal, the president called the balance between protecting travelers’ rights and their security a “tough situation.”

Per the new rules, travelers may be subject to full-body scans at 400 such machines in 69 airports nationwide. Those who voluntarily opt out — as well as those who set off a scanning machine or a metal detector — are subject to a pat-down. Some travelers have likened the pat-downs to groping.

The president said such methods are needed after what happened December 25, 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria allegedly boarded a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with a bomb hidden in his underwear. Abdulmutallab reportedly failed to set off the bomb, which metal detectors didn’t detect, though his attempt led to airport screening procedures that have caused a holiday travel uproar.

“At this point, the Transportation Security Administration, in consultation with our counterterrorism experts, have indicated to me that the procedures that they’ve been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing,” said Obama.

Of course Abdulmutallab boarded his flight to Detroit in Amsterdam, so these enhanced screening procedures would have done nothing to stop him from getting to the United States, and that remains true for vast numbers of foreign terrorists who could theoretically carry out an attack on an American airliner without ever stepping foot on American soil. Richard Reid boarded his flight to the United States in Paris, for example, and  the attack on Pan Am Flight 103 took place without a single terrorist entering the United States.  In that case, the explosives that brought the plane down over Lockerbie, Scotland were put on the plane in Germany. Neither the attempted attacks by Richard Reid or Adbulmultallab, nor the successful attack on the Pan Am airliner, would have been prevented by screening procedures in the United States. So,  forcing American travelers to undergo invasive security procedures doesn’t necessarily accomplish anything.

More importantly, though, Obama’s response strikes me as being politically tone deaf. In the face of outrage over Americans being groped by TSA agents, children being man-handled in a bizarre procedure that makes no logical sense, and people being exposed to the humiliation of having prosthetic breasts removed or being covered in their own urine, Obama’s “Too bad, you’ve gotta do it anyway” response is a sign of how far removed from reality the Presidency makes a person. If the President or members of his family had to subject themselves to TSA screening on a regular basis, one would think his opinion on the matter w0uld be quite different.

Obama somewhat admits to this in his remarks:

Obama’s response is not surprising. After all, his motivation is to make sure that he doesn’t get blamed for lax security if there’s another attack on his watch. The inconveniences suffered by the American people when traveling from Point A to Point B aren’t so much on his radar, neither, apparently, is the question of where in the Constitution an agent of the government is given the authority to grope people in the name of “safety.” From that point of view, how invasive these procedures are isn’t really his primary concern.

From a political point of view, though, the President’s response strikes me as ill-advised, and if the outrage we’ve seen over the last two weeks continues he could find himself far behind the curve when it comes to reacting to something that the American people are seemingly fed up with.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Tano says:

    “After all, his motivation is to make sure that he doesn’t get blamed for lax security if there’s another attack on his watch.”

    Right. At no point need we consider that maybe, just maybe, he might be motivated by doing what the experts tell him is necessary to keep the public safe.
    You can be a real putz sometimes, Doug.

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  2. Dean says:

    Just curious how much outrage there would be over the TSA searches if Bush were still president. I’m thinking the ACLU would have been in court by now demanding these illegal searches be stopped immediately.

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  4. Tano says:

    “Just curious how much outrage there would be over the TSA searches if Bush were still president.”
    We certainly know that 90% of the people who are whining now would not be.
    ‘I’m thinking the ACLU would have been…”
    http://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/tsa-pat-down-search-abuse
     

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  5. Wayne says:

    Tano you got your numbers backwards.90% of the people whining now would be whining if it was Bush admin doing it.

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  6. Eric Florack says:

    The tone-deafness of this administration has been nothing short of legend, and yet nothing short fo what I anticipated. Please, explain to us all, how the subject of the TSA shoule be any different than the tone deafness over his other big government policies?

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  7. Eric Florack says:

    We certainly know that 90% of the people who are whining now would not be.

    False. THe “Bush did it too” defense doesn’t wash, Tano.

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  8. Wayne says:

    Remember many of us complain about some of the actions taken during the Bush administration like the stupid taking of fingernail clippers. What is going on now is much worse than taking fingernail clippers and that is the reason for the greater outcry.

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  9. michael reynolds says:

    I’m as big an Obama fan as anyone, but that was a stupid, unnecessary, politically tone-deaf statement.

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  10. just me says:

    i do suspect part of the tone deafness is related to the president and his family not having to worry about such screenings.
     
    I also saw plenty of conservatives complaining about much of the TSA idiocy pretty consistently.  I know I have long thought searching grannies and 3 year olds are ridiculous but think even more so the rules about taking your shoes off and limiting the kinds of liquid you can carry in your carry on end up putting far more stress on the average traveler than protects anyone or anything.
     
    I am not sure there is an easy answer to airport security-but much of what we currently do seems to be more theater than any real ability to find weapons or bombs.
     
     

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  11. anjin-san says:

    Say bit, some of us remember your oft used line “the constitution is not a suicide pact” that you trotted out when you were cheering on Bush’s erosion of rights & civil liberties.
    The point is not “Bush did it too”. it’s “Bush put this in motion”. And you stood on your chair and shouted encoragement – that is when you were not hiding under the sheets going “Oh God, Oh Please… do anything, just don’t let Obama hurt me”.
    Liberals anticipated abuses. They warned you. And you replied “why do you hate America”?
     
     

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  13. just me says:

    Anjin I don’t see much reason to blame Bush for this current policy or the tone deafness of Obama.
     
    He has been president for 2 years now, time for the buck to start dropping on his desk.
     
    And I for one have thought much of the security theater done by the TSA has been pretty worthless and in the end just makes travel more difficult for the vast majority of travelers who don’t think about blowing up airplanes.
     
    And I imagine one huge reason for the utter lack of understanding on his part is that nobody from the TSA is groping his genitals or those of his children.
     
    I will also say that I rarely travel by air, and this kind of stuff makes air travel less likely, but I probably wouldn’t care much about the scanner-but I still think even that is mostly security theater designed more to say “hey look we are doing something” than any real common sense attempt to keep planes secure.

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  14. Dean says:

    Dean: “Just curious how much outrage there would be over the TSA searches if Bush were still president.”Tano: “We certainly know that 90% of the people who are whining now would not be.”
    If you’re referring to the survey that said 90% of Americans were OK with the use of scanners at airports, that was a really bad study. Had they asked are comfortable going through new scanners at airports, the numbers would have been much different.

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  15. anjin-san says:

    >  Anjin I don’t see much reason to blame Bush for this current policy or the tone deafness of Obama.
     
    Where did I blame Bush for Obama’s statement? I agree, it was rather lame. Obama’s tendency to be too cerebral is a liability in these sorts of situations.
     
    As for the current policy, what do you suggest? Think back to the failed Christmas bombing attempt, and the rights excoration of Obmba for being “weak on terror”. As long as the GOP is a single issue party, with the single issue being to damage Obama by any means possible, it will be difficult for us to have reasonable policy discussions in this country, much less reasonable policies.
     
    Do you deny that Democrats/liberals warned of the abuses that were sure to result as Bush was building his “war on terror” security apparatus?  My sense is that the current outrage is not over the fact that there are abuses, but that there are abuses that might actually affect, you know, you or me. (though personally I don’t give a crap if they want to scan me, I am not modest). There we quite a few folks in this country that lost no sleep at all over abuses directed at brown people from places who’s name we have trouble pronouncing…

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  16. john personna says:

    The problem, in second-guessing any President, is in what he knows, that we don’t know.
     
    As an example, was the Iraq WDM argument honest?  It took a little while and a few leaks to know for sure.
     
    I’ll say this.  If two or three years from now we learn that there was no special intelligence and no escalated threat, then definitely Obama was tone deaf and worse.
    But I think it would be foolish to call it now.

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  17. wr says:

    I seem to recall it was just a year ago that everyone was freaking out about how the evil underwear bombers were going to kill us all, and we had to do anything and everything to make oursevles safe. I even remember Righties saying we should invade several countries, just to be sure.
    Now the same people are screaming and whining and carrying on about how their rights are being violated, and no threat could possibly be as bad as this kind of rape.
    I wouldn’t have blamed Obama if he’d said “This is what you demanded, and now you’re whining because you’ve got it. Maybe you should learn to think before you start whining.”
    Now that would have been tone deaf. But I’m sure it crossed his mind…

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  18. anjin-san says:

    > we had to do anything and everything to make oursevles safe

    Bingo. And if Obama were to order TSA to lighten up on screenings and a plane was subsequently destroyed, the right would crucify him.

    This is the problem with the GOP being a one issue party. All they want to do is damage Obama. Period.

    Did anyone else notice the roaring silence on the right regarding the recently foiled terror bombing plot against air freight carriers? There was nothing to bash Obama with, so they just weren’t very interested.

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  19. superdestroyer says:

    The only people being padded down are those who refuse to go through the total body imagers.  The real question is why have Americans decided to panic about the imaging systems.
    the reasons given verge on being irrational.  The problem that Americans have is to understand that real security is very hard to do. The Obamas live with armed security 24/7 and something as simple as having their daughters friends over to the White House or going to a restaurant is a huge deal.
    If people want less security, then they need to be honest and say that they will accept a higher risk of people being killed by terrorists.

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  20. ponce says:

    How does Obama’s response to the wingnut outrage of the week = political tone deafness?
     
    I think America is starting to realize the Republicans are just bad people.

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  21. michael reynolds says:

    And virtually no coverage at all of this:

    Working under extraordinary secrecy, the U.S. and Kazakh governments in the past year have moved nuclear material that could have been used to make more than 770 bombs from a location feared vulnerable to terrorist attack to a new high-security facility.
    In the largest such operation ever mounted, U.S. and Kazakh officials transferred 11 tons of highly enriched uranium and 3 tons of plutonium some 1,890 miles by rail and road across the Central Asian country.
    The transfer culminated a project spanning three American presidencies that was intended to prevent the material from falling into the wrong hands.

    Because of course all that was was a quiet, diplomacy-based, no-one-killed triumph that removed massive quantities of nuclear materials stored about ten feet away from Chechnya and made our country infinitely safer.

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  22. The only people being padded down are those who refuse to go through the total body imagers

    Actually, that’s not true.  If after the scanner they have doubts about what they saw, you then get the pat-down.  I posted a story about Dave Barry’s “blurred groin” incident the other day and I have a friend who, after a scan, still had to experience a rather invasive pat down, included a TSA official putting his hand inside the waistline of his jeans.

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  23. Ben says:

    I for one, can tell you that “The only people being padded down are those who refuse to go through the total body imagers” is completely false.  I flew out of Boston in August, and went through the full-body scanner (even though it COMPLETELY creeped me out), and STILL got patted down afterwards.
    And the thing that Tano (and others) seem to be harping on, that the only people complaining now are righties trying to hate on Obama, is ridiculous.  I have never in my life identified myself as either a republican or a conservative, and I think the newer procedures are absolutely disgusting.  And I’m not going to subject my wife or my soon-to-be-born infant son to it, period.

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  24. anjin-san says:

    Ben… what do you suggest as an alternative? How will you feel if security is scaled back and, God forbid, your family is on a plane that is successfully attacked?
    I am one of the people who was warning about erosion of liberty and excesses in the name of security when Homeland Security was formed. But we can’t have it both ways. Last year there was a firestorm of “Obama is weak on terror” when there was a near-miss attempt to blow up a plane. Now we have done a 180 and there is a firestorm complaining about too much security.
    My sense is that there is some level of actual complaint from the left/center, but that this is more of a right wing attempt to attack the government, and by extension, Obama. Certainly seeing Ann Coulter’s TSA rants points in that direction…
     

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  25. MarkedMan says:

    Whoa.  My wife, like millions of other Americans, has an artificial knee. (Fill in “hip”, “cranial plate” or any variety of screws, rods and other assorted junk that gets placed inside us as we fall apart and you have tens of millions).  She will get the full on grope every single time.  As will the person with the colestomy bag, or the one who sneezed or the one who gets the pat down because of a random mark placed on their boarding pass by the computer.
    Calling this a “pat down” is like calling torture “enhanced interrogation”.  I’m a frequent flyer and I’ve been patted down before.  It was nothing like this.
    And yes, Obama would be a fool to do anything about this because he will get exactly zero support from the right wingers if he does what they are asking and have the TSA lighten up. In fact, they will deny they ever said anything and attack him with everything in their power.  Can anyone out there honestly say they believe differently?

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  26. ponce says:

    “And the thing that Tano (and others) seem to be harping on, that the only people complaining now are righties trying to hate on Obama, is ridiculous.”
    Considering all the dead Iraqis who had to pay for America’s overblown sense of fear and entitlement, getting your privates patted seems a small sacrifice.
    Maybe once we stop slaughtering innocents in the name of our “security” you could whine, but until then, you are being petty and obscene.
     

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  27. rodney dill says:

    <blockquote>I even remember Righties saying we should invade several countries, just to be sure.</blockquote>Really? Please provide the names of the ‘righties’, the countries, and the source, thank you.

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  28. anjin-san says:

    Rodeny – do you deny that the right was rather, shall we say, hysterical about the “Christmas bomber”? That there were quite a few calls for more draconian security? You sound like someone who is trying to get off on a technicality…

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  29. tom p says:

    and his response strikes me as being incredibly non-responsive to the concerns that people have raised about procedures that many consider to be incredibly invasive

    WTF are you people complaining about??? “They are treating me like I am BLACK or something.” I am so sick and f’n tired of reading you white motherf’rs complain about getting treated like you were black or brown…
    Wake up to America, MF’ers. You made it. Now you have to live in it. Do what you have been telling “us” to do for years… STFU.
     
     

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  30. Dodd says:

    Obama Politically Tone Deaf On TSA Outrage
     
    FTFY

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  31. ponce says:

    “Obama Politically Tone Deaf”
     
    Yes, of course.
     
    That’s why his approval rating is higher now than it was a year ago.
     
    The wingnuts are in for a big surprise come 2012.
     
     

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  32. Franklin says:

    How will you feel if security is scaled back and, God forbid, your family is on a plane that is successfully attacked?
    You’re presuming that the current “security” would prevent an attack.  I’ve seen no such evidence.
    BTW, I’m typically an Obama defender but he’d change his tune pretty quickly if his daughters were molested by a TSA agent, or had their naked images stored.  Completely tone deaf here, agreed 100%.

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  33. Franklin says:

    Oops meant to quote anjin-san above in my first sentence.

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  34. sam says:

    @Doug
    “After all, his motivation is to make sure that he doesn’t get blamed for lax security if there’s another attack on his watch.”
     
    BTW, that’s a singularly cynical way of putting it. Maybe, just maybe, he’s motivated by a desire to ensure the safety of airline passengers and doesn’t want to read about pieces of an airplane showering down on the countryside.

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  35. daveinboca says:

    You’re just now figuring out what I understood even before the Ayers [whom I knew personally back in SDS along with Diana Oughton, his girl friend who blew herself up with an Ayers-designed bomb] and Rev. Wright revelations?  I grew up in the ’80s.
    Obama is a showhorse, not a workhorse.  He’s a quieter, calmer version of Chuck Shumer, always looking for the mike, preferably with a teleprompter, as he’s not very smart.  Really. Not. Very. Smart.
    Glad you’re starting to figure all that out.
    BTW, how many terrorist attack attempts by airplane have occurred starting in US airports since 9/11?
     

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  36. bandit says:

    Obama’s not politically tone deaf – he just can’t conceive of any limit to the gov’ts power at any time.

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  37. MarkedMan says:

    “BTW, how many terrorist attack attempts by airplane have occurred starting in US airports since 9/11?”
    Well, there have been several unsuccessful attempts, but none of them were defeated by the TSA screeners.  There has been one successful airplane related terrorist attack – a middle aged white male flew a private plane into an IRS building.  Again, the TSA neither failed nor succeeded on this one – they weren’t involved.  And before you say, “well, he was a white, Christian male, it doesn’t count” let’s pamper your prejudices and say that terrorism only counts when it is Muslim.  The TSA screeners wouldn’t have been involved if he was Muslim either.

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  38. anjin-san says:

    >  Ayers [whom I knew personally back in SDS along with Diana Oughton, his girl friend who blew herself up with an Ayers-designed bomb] and Rev. Wright revelations?  I grew up in the ’80s.
     
    Ummm. That would mean you grew up watching Maimi Vice, not hanging around with radicals…

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  39. anjin-san says:

    > You’re presuming that the current “security” would prevent an attack.  I’ve seen no such evidence.
     
    Its a pretty difficult thing to prove either way & I am not necessarily advocating the current procedures. Point is that you can’t have it both ways. A year ago, there was a Fox News led rantfest about how Obama was weak on terror and that anything and everything had to be done to keep us safe while flying. Now we have a Fox News led rantfest about how the out of control government is infringing our rights. (I do not count you as a ranter, you are consistantly reasonable). There are legitimate concerns about current TSA procedures that need to be addressed, but it is pretty much impossible to have a reasonable discourse in this climate.

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  40. Diana M. says:

    After reading these comments, what most of you are overlooking is that there are better ways – such as those used by El Al Airlines, to accomplish heightened security.  This should not be an all or nothing scenario;  there is a middle ground that will keep us just as safe – if not safer – than either ignoring the whole thing, or expecting everyone (except those who REALLY should be profiled and thoroughly screened) to be sexually molested just to cover Obama’s a**.  He is NOT LISTENING TO ANYONE.  He is, and will continue, doing what HE wants to do jus to make himself feel good and look good. 

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  41. The Remnant says:

    [...] its so-called job. It’s both over-inclusive and under-protective, and it seems likely that any screening system will have the same problems: Of course Abdulmutallab boarded his flight to Detroit in Amsterdam, so these enhanced screening [...]

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  42. MarkedMan says:

    “…just to cover Obama’s a**.  He is NOT LISTENING TO ANYONE.  He is, and will continue, doing what HE wants to do jus to make himself feel good and look good. ”
    Hmm.  And if Obama does change this policy, and something happens, would you defend him?  When Rush and Beck and the RW echo chamber are saying he deliberately relaxed security because he hates America, will you call in an say, no, I think it was the right thing to do?’
    I want this policy changed, but Obama would be nuts to put his fingerprints on that change.  Republicans need to push it. It’s interesting that when there is something politically risky to do you demand Obama take the lead.  What about the Republican party? I don’t see anyone demanding they take the lead.

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  43. [...] Mataconis targets President Obama: More importantly, though, Obama’s response strikes me as being politically tone deaf. In the [...]

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  44. [...] of the nudie scanners in question, but he’ll stand up and do what’s right. Right? Right? “At this point, the Transportation Security Administration, in consultation with our [...]

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  45. An Interested Party says:

    “It’s interesting that when there is something politically risky to do you demand Obama take the lead.  What about the Republican party? I don’t see anyone demanding they take the lead.”
    Why should they?  They can sit around and complain now with no consequences and if he does change things and a terrorist attack happens, they can blame it all on him…much like when just after the recent elections, the GOP talking point seemed to be that the president is in charge, he is the policy-maker, etc…so that if the economy doesn’t improve by 2012, they can blame that on him without accepting any responsibility, even though they now control the House…

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  46. [...] is not just the Obama Administration that is tone deaf as to what is going in with airport checkpoints: you can add the Washington Post and writers Jon [...]

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  47. Hey, anjin-san:
    “…that is when you were not hiding under the sheets going ‘Oh God, Oh Please… do anything, just don’t let Obama hurt me’.”
    Obama?
    Y’know what’s even funnier than your typo?
    Apparently not one single commenter that came after you even noticed it.

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  48. [...] Obama on people protesting the TSA: Shut up and enjoy your groping. [...]

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  49. [...] attacks — you’d think they’d avoid talking about using them elsewhere.   The tone deafness on this issue continues. FILED UNDER: James Joyner, Quick Picks, [...]

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