By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; A02
Where does President Obama stand on the Under-bomber? Let's review:
"I've ordered two important reviews," he declared on Dec. 28, three days after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up a plane over Detroit with explosives hidden in his briefs.
"I announced two reviews," he repeated the next day. "The reviews I've ordered will surely tell us more."
On Saturday, the president told the nation that he had "received the preliminary findings of the reviews that I ordered."
Finally, after returning from Hawaii to the White House, Obama went before cameras on Tuesday afternoon and announced that he was . . . well, still reviewing the matter. "I made it clear today to my team I want our initial reviews completed this week," he said.
For Obama, a former president of the Harvard Law Review, the response to the Under-bomber has been a veritable Review Revue. And it's not just a semantic thing: His instinct when facing all types of problems -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Fort Hood shootings, the pending Gitmo closing -- has led him to the same approach: Order a review. It is a hallmark of his governing style.
Arguably, this is exactly the type of leadership a president should provide, cool and deliberate even in a crisis. After eight years of seat-of-the-pants leadership, calm reflection and reasoned action has much to recommend it; if Dick Cheney were president today, we might already have invaded Iran to punish al-Qaeda for training the accused Nigerian bomber in Yemen.
On the other hand, the take-a-deep-breath response has opened up Obama to criticism that he has been slow and wavering. ABC News's Rick Klein suggested Tuesday that "a touch of anger" would benefit Obama. "This is one time where Mr. Cool doesn't need to be."
As he walked into the Grand Foyer of the White House on Tuesday afternoon, the president looked for a balance between the too-hot words of his predecessor and the too-cold accusations of his critics.
"The bottom line is this: The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots," Obama said, using words that, for him at least, indicated fury. He added that "it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That's not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it."
Yet when it came to questions about consequences -- Would people lose their jobs? Would the intelligence community be restructured again? -- he was not ready to answer. "We will make a summary of this preliminary report public within the next few days," he offered. He mentioned his reviews 11 times.
Upon further review, there was little chance that Obama, even while adopting a tougher tone, would step down from his reviewing stand. His systematic reviews, while drawing complaints of dithering, have served him well before. Afghanistan, missile defense and taxes each received a "thorough review." He got a "top-to-bottom review" of cybersecurity and a "complete review" of gun trafficking to Mexico, and demanded a "mechanism to review" climate-change policies. Fort Hood, Gitmo, urban policy, Iraq, the economic stimulus, domestic partner benefits, the presidential helicopter and even the White House party-crashers had reviews of their own.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was in review mode earlier Tuesday as he previewed the president's speech; the word was mentioned 34 times in the briefing.
"Is anybody at all going to lose their job over this?" asked ABC News's Jake Tapper.
"Well, again, the review is ongoing," Gibbs answered.
The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman asked about the British government's claims that it had given the Americans information about the attacker. Gibbs replied that he's "not going to get into . . . discussing that aspect of the ongoing review."
Was there a communications breakdown? "I don't want to get too far ahead of the review." How will Obama hold people accountable? "Accountability is part of the ongoing review." People won't necessarily be fired? "I'm going to wait for the review to finish."
Fast-forward a few hours: The president walks into the Grand Foyer to review the reviews.
"I just concluded a meeting," he said, with officials "involved in the security reviews that I ordered." For those just tuning in to the review process, he reminded viewers that "I ordered two reviews," one "drawing on the best science and technology," and the other "a thorough review into our terrorist watch-listing system."
"This ongoing review continues to reveal more about the human and systemic failures that almost cost nearly 300 lives," the president continued.
And he made clear that, in the Obama administration, the Review Revue will continue its successful run, whatever the critics say. "As our adversaries seek new recruits," he said, "we'll constantly review and rapidly update our intelligence and our institutions."