Obama Takes the Blame

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; 9:37 AM

Well, it worked for Harry Truman.

President Obama's speeches often lack a concise sound bite, but he had one yesterday that his team knew would become the headline: "Ultimately, the buck stops with me."

By saying that "when the system fails, it is my responsibility," the president handed his adversaries -- you know, those people who keep saying he's made the country less safe -- a big fat club. But he also admitted the obvious. This was a monumental screwup -- doesn't help much to find out about Abdulmullatab when he's already on the flight, does it? -- and Obama runs the show. At the same time, critics might fairly note that no heads rolled. The president sounded stern: "I have repeatedly made it clear -- in public with the American people, and in private with my national security team -- that I will hold my staff, our agencies and the people in them accountable when they fail to perform their responsibilities at the highest levels."

Then came the but: This was "not the fault of a single individual or organization," but a "systemic failure." Maybe, but if everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible.

Experts can debate whether the steps ordered by the president will beef up airline security. The Bush revamp was supposed to fix this connect-the-dots problem too, yet they often remain stubbornly unconnected.

I did like this part of Obama's remarks: "We will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am president, we will never hand them that victory."

No system is foolproof. And I often worry that we tie ourselves in unnecessary knots by frisking grandmothers and making everyone take off their shoes and carry tiny little toothpaste tubes. There has got to be a better way to keep psychopaths off planes than to keep ratcheting up the harassment level for law-abiding citizens until the air traffic system becomes paralyzed. I don't mind stepping through a full-body scanner. I got nothing to hide.

The morning papers focus mainly on the substance but also get some bang from the "buck":

"President Obama on Thursday ordered intelligence agencies to take a series of steps to streamline how terrorism threats are pursued and analyzed, saying the government had to respond aggressively to the failures that allowed a Nigerian man to ignite an explosive mixture on a commercial jetliner on Christmas Day," says the New York Times.

"Declaring that 'the buck stops with me,' President Obama on Thursday released the results of an internal investigation into the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt and ordered a series of incremental measures meant to close gaps in the U.S. intelligence system that failed to detect it in advance," says the L.A. Times.

"President Obama, declaring that the 'buck stops with me' when it comes to protecting the nation from terrorists, ordered stepped up aviation security and released a declassified report on intelligence failures behind the near-catastrophic Christmas Day attack," says USA Today.

"President Obama took responsibility Thursday for the government's failure to head off a Christmas Day bomber, saying 'ultimately the buck stops with me,' and he released a report that showed eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks the government still is not properly analyzing and acting on intelligence," says the Washington Times.

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