It took President Barack Obama nearly 24 hours to describe Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon the same way that lawmakers, experts and even his own staff did: as an act of terrorism.
That was no accident.
Obama learned in his first term that while the American people want their president to console them after a national tragedy, he should remain cautious in what he says so as not to prematurely judge a situation.
“The president’s words matter,” said Dave Carney, a longtime Republican strategist who worked in the George H.W. Bush White House. “The whole world watches and listens and dissects what he says.”
In his first statement Monday evening, a mere three hours after the explosions, Obama praised first responders and vowed to find those responsible for the attack. But he refused to call the bombings terrorism even though lawmakers and White House aides said it was “clearly an act of terror.”
“People shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts,” Obama said instead in a three-and-a-half-minute statement at the White House.
Some conservative commentators and journalists criticized his remarks. Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly said Obama was wrong when he called the events a tragedy. “It was not,” O’Reilly said Monday night. “It was a vile act of violence, designed to kill innocent people, including children.”
By late Tuesday morning, Obama had issued a second brief statement that was much more pointed.
“This was a heinous and cowardly act,” the president said at the White House. “And given what we now know about what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism. Anytime bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror.”
From the start, the bombings had met most definitions of terrorism. But White House officials said Obama was careful with his words Monday in part because the information was still fluid, including the locations and number of bombs.
Terrorism experts and White House officials said that what the president uttered publicly had no bearing on the investigation of the bombings, being led by the FBI.
“It’s obviously a terrorist attack, but I don’t think it mattered that he didn’t use the word that first night,” said Aitan D. Goelman, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York who helped prosecute the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case and represented hundreds of American citizens who were victims of international terrorist attacks in lawsuits brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
“The president’s statement the day of (an attack) is to the American people, not to investigators,” Goelman said. “It’s part of the president’s job to channel what the American people are feeling and need to hear. But whether he should have or shouldn’t have said the word terrorism is not really a legal question. It’s a political question.”
William Vizzard, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, who was a special agent in charge at what then was called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said the Boston attacks were terrorism but that Obama might have hesitated to say that because it had become a “loaded word” in the United States to mean Islamic terrorism.
In his first term, the president was criticized for his responses to several potential incidents of terrorism.
Most notably, he was vacationing in Hawaii in 2009 and waited three days to speak publicly about the attempted bombing of a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight as it prepared to land in Detroit.
“There’s a suspicion among Republicans that he is only willing to be tough against al Qaida and nobody else,” said Will Marshall, a former Democratic speechwriter who heads the Progressive Policy Institute research center.
Obama, Marshall said, struck the right tone in trying to calm the nation after three people were killed and more than 170 were wounded Monday in two blasts near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
“When there is a crisis we look to the president to be calm, not to be excitable, not boiling over,” he said.
But it’s clearly a balancing act. In at least two other instances, the president was faulted not for his speed but for not speaking forcefully enough.
In 2009, Obama called the deaths of 13 people at Fort Hood military base in Texas in 2009 an “act of workplace violence” despite the shooter’s ties to terrorists. Last September, his aides attributed the attack that killed four Americans at a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, to a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video, not a terrorist operation.
In both cases, Republicans pounced.
However, Marc Thiessen, who served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, said conservatives had plenty of reasons to be suspicious of Obama but that the president’s reaction to Monday’s bombing wasn’t one of them.
“We don’t know what this is yet,” he said.