What Obama really meant when he said America can "absorb" a terrorist attack.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 22 2010 7:28 PM

Obama Is a Cheney Realist

What Obama really meant when he said America can "absorb" a terrorist attack.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama

President Obama has been getting a lot of heat from conservatives for a quote in Bob Woodward's new book. It reads: "We can absorb a terrorist attack. We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever … we absorbed it and we are stronger."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The quote screams for context—if for no other reason than its use of ellipses—but the president's critics weren't waiting for it. John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush administration, said the comment suggested the president "doesn't care about Americans dying." Mark Thiessen, a speechwriter in the Bush White House, called it "stunningly complacent." Liz Cheney said: "This comment suggests an alarming fatalism on the part of President Obama and his administration. Once again the President seems either unwilling or unable to do what it takes to keep this nation safe."

Advertisement

I asked an administration official familiar with the interview to provide me with context. The president was talking with Woodward about the national-security threats he faced upon becoming president—the possible dangers and the fact that the terrorists had to be right only once, whereas the president and his team had to be right every time.

This led the president to talk about the need to prioritize. Objectively, the president said, you would want to be able to stop every attack, but a president has to prioritize. So what does the president put at the top of the danger list? A nuclear weapon or a weapon of mass destruction. Why? Because—and here's where the quote in question comes in—as bad as 9/11 was, the United States was not crippled. A nuclear attack or weapon of mass destruction, however, would be a "game changer," to use a popular cliché.

This line of reasoning is identical to what I heard regularly when I covered the Bush White House. Moreover, it was the realism of Liz Cheney's father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said: "We have to assume there will be more attacks. And for the first time in our history, we will probably suffer more casualties here at home in America than will our troops overseas."

I remember being a little shocked at how brutal the calculus was when I heard officials in Cheney's office involved in the national response to terrorism say that they had to focus their energy first on "mass casualty" events. What were they talking about? The same thing the president was: a nuclear attack or one that used a weapon of mass destruction.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.