The Irrelevance of 9/11

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 6, 2011


The importance international media and public opinion confer to the memorials that will mark the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks contrasts with the limited political importance the war against terrorism will have on next year’s presidential election. President Obama should still use the opportunity to rise above the polarized political class in Washington and remind Americans that,10 years ago, the country came together in the face of an external threat and showed remarkable unity. Showing leadership to bring the country together again will be admittedly more difficult, but September 11 is an opportunity for Americans to look at what unites them and stop obsessing over the issues that separate them.


Power of renewal

One of the strengths of the American political system is its capacity to renew its leadership. When the 9/11 attacks took place, none of the current relevant national political actors had the leadership positions they hold today. As a result, today's leaders do not need to justify their past actions.

 A passionate debate over what the American government did right and where it erred takes place in the public sphere, but not in the political arena. Though many Democrats, including President Obama, believe that going to war in Iraq was a mistake, they know that Americans want them to solve problems, not blame previous administrations for the problems this White House inherited.

 The debate over the positive and negative components of President Bush’s legacy also belongs in the public sphere, not the political arena.

 Having killed Osama Bin Laden will be of little use to strengthen President Obama’s credentials as a leader capable of leading America back onto the right path of economic growth and job creation. To be sure, if a new terrorist attack were to occur, people's priorities would quickly change, at least in the short run, and Obama’s anti-terrorism record would be severely damaged.

 However, such an attack would also dramatically shake up the Republican camp of presidential hopefuls. Still, because the commemoration of 9/11 will not bring him a tailwind, preventing new terrorist attacks is more important for President Obama’s national security agenda.


Focusing on jobs

 But, the most important issue on Obama’s overall agenda is job creation. Rather than discussing anti-terrorism strategies, his government must focus on what it can and should do to stimulate the economy and foster employment.

In 1992, after the end of the Cold War, the Bill Clinton campaign team coined one of the most famous campaign slogans in recent American history: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In American campaigns it has always been the case that domestic politics matters more than international affairs, and high unemployment is more damaging for an incumbent government than failed war efforts. However, the power of the Clinton campaign’s catch-phrase also had to do with the consolidation of mass media and the 24-hour news-cycle as the main mechanism through which campaigns communicate with potential voters. It's not just the message. It is also how the message is framed and delivered. The simplicity of Clinton’s message still resonates with an ever less attentive public and with a national audience used to over-the-counter solutions.

Not surprisingly, President Obama has chosen to deliver a speech on job creation before Congress, a few days before the September 11 memorials. Though the speech has been tainted by the controversy over the date of the speech — with a date change concession made by Obama to the Republican leadership, which further underlines the image of Obama as anything but a stellar negotiator — the White House will nonetheless have an opportunity to shift the focus of the debate from the fiscal deficit to job creation.

 If Obama succeeds, he will be better positioned to bargain with Congress in the coming months and will have an advantage over the Republican presidential hopefuls, whose message has centered on the deficit. If the president fails at convincing Americans of the need to focus on job creation to get the economy growing again — finding a way to fiscal discipline in 3-4 years — Obama will further damage his already mediocre approval ratings and will raise additional concerns over his re-election chances.

Because he needs to convince Americans that a focus on jobs is more important — in the short and long term — than the focus on the deficit, Obama needs to draw on the unity produced by the reaction to the September 11 attacks to bring the United States together again behind a single cause.

 Unlike Bush in 2001, Obama will not find support in the political opposition in Washington. In part as a result of the political divisions generated by the war in Iraq, the America public seems less inclined to heed to the call for unity. However, just as Bush seemed to have found his true calling in leading the war against terrorism after the September 11 attacks, Obama might still be able to reinvent his presidency by putting all of his efforts in promoting job creation policies and in leading a national war against unemployment.