Both President Obama and Mitt Romney are in dangerous political territory as the response to the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans unfolds. The tributes to the exemplary career foreign service officer are pouring in, while the circumstances surrounding the murders are still unknown and the news rapidly develops. The political significance of this tragedy is unclear, but the protests that led to the assassination of an American diplomat in Benghazi are continuing in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The president must not do too little and Romney must not do too much. The president must avoid being seen as exploiting the situation. His administration has already stumbled by issuing an outrageous statement through the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, before we knew that our ambassador had been killed, that made excuses for the demonstrations. If the president now feels like he needs to recover from his initial response he might overreach in his attempt to rally Americans to his side.
Romney can't carp from the sidelines. He issued a statement about the attack last night, but there is little else he can do but watch the president's reaction as events continue to unfold. He’s in the unflattering position of being a passive observer of events, able to comment only after the fact. The president can look big and Romney can look small.
Everything we know about the president tells us his administration's response will be conducted with an eye toward the campaign. And he and his team will act indignant when commentators say so. Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt has already accused the Romney campaign of injecting politics into this terrible occurrence. Look for a reciprocal charge from the Romney campaign.
Americans want to rally around the president during a crisis. Obama is making that hard with his administration's initial bewildering response combined with the bad timing of the disclosure that the president has snubbed Israel, America's principal ally in the region, by refusing to meet with the Israeli prime minister on the same day that the White House confirms the president does have time to appear on the David Letterman’s TV show.
Also, it was disclosed this week that the president often skips his daily national security intelligence briefing. You can bet there will be a search for evidence that growing unrest in Libya was included in a CIA briefing that the president did not attend.
This horrific incident has become a part of the 2012 presidential campaign. The president's next few days could be the most closely watched of his presidency. His performance could determine the outcome of the election.