The Predictable Turn in the 'Where Was Obama?' Outrage

The return of the magic word "gaffe."

People make their way down Boulevard Voltaire during a unity rally on Jan. 11, 2015, in Paris.

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

By Sunday night, it was hard to miss the punditocracy's riot over the absence of Obama administration presence at the #JeSuisCharlie march. It took until this morning for elected Republicans to weigh in. They were being asked, and while some passed up an opportunity* to hit the White House, Texas Senator Ted Cruz didn't. He filed an op-ed for Time magazine, posted to the Ideas section, declaring the lack of Obamaians at the march "symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage."

Cruz wasn't writing much about policy. He suggested that the United States needed to "condemn and shun state sponsors of terrorism," but he didn't mention the ongoing air war against ISIS, which is being conducted under the auspices of the 2o02 authorization of military force in Iraq. He was writing about messaging. He used the phrase "radical Islamist" eight times; four times, he expanded the phrase to "radical Islamic terrorism."

This #JeSuisCharlie infighting was destined to go this way. In his only public response to the Paris attacks, the president called them "terrorism." That prevented a fight like the one that followed the Benghazi attacks of 2012, when conservatives lacerated the president for merely using the word "terrorism" in a statement while members of the administration insisted the attacks could have been random. But the president didn't call out Islam; on the right this was evidence that he was once again refusing to be realistic and shame the terrorists.

"This would be as if Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have used the word Communism," said Rudy Giuliani last week. "It’s a sign of weakness... it doesn’t organize the world against them and start to isolate the more moderate Muslims and give them a place to comment and speak out."

Texas Senator John Cornyn, the new majority whip in the Senate, said basically the same thing.

And so did Doug Schoen, not a Republican official but a Democratic pollster who keeps finding himself making the Republican case and getting heavy pickup. "We are at war with radical Islam," Schoen wrote in a Fox News column. "President Obama needs to say it."

This reaction to the "snub" should have been as predictable as a patient's leg kicking when a doctor's mallet hits his knee. The familiarity of it all might actually calm the White House. Just as the 2013 attack on the Boston marathon briefly raised questions about immigration policy, the Paris attacks had started a conversation about France's Muslim population and the continuing American aid to nations like Saudi Arabia. In Europe and some of the countries represented at the Paris march, the conversation today is about whether the leaders who showed up were trying to cover up their own media abuses at home.

The conversation in America is lurching back to the familiar—"why won't Obama talk about Islamic terrorism?" And the White House knows how to dismiss that.

*John Boehner's office was giving reporters an even-handed statement. "In the wake of Sept. 11, the world—including the people of France—rallied in support of the United States," said Boehner's spokesman Michael Steel. "The French should feel the same support from all freedom-loving peoples today."

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