Barack Obama’s Achilles heel on terrorism
His air of detachment has fed the perception that he is indecisive — or worse, reactive over Isis
On the face of it, the San Bernardino massacre is the other end of the scale to the 11 September attacks — 14 dead against almost 3,000, a self-radicalised pro-Isis couple versus 20 al-Qaeda-trained terrorists, and an attack carried out on foot in a suburb as opposed to planes flying into New York’s Twin Towers.
Yet it has set off shockwaves that could alter the shape of next year’s presidential election. The US public has a new sense of vulnerability to an enemy within. It is hard to overstate San Bernardino’s impact on America’s state of mind.
Even before last Wednesday’s atrocity — labelled a terrorist act by the FBI — fear of terrorism had overtaken the economy to be the US public’s top concern according to polls. Much of that was in response to the massacres in Paris last month that claimed 130 lives.
But the fear index has been steadily rising since videos of the Isis beheadings of Americans and others started to hit people’s screens more than a year ago. It is easy to downplay the public’s worry about improbable events — you are far likelier to die in a car crash, or even choke on a pretzel, than to fall victim to terrorism on US soil. But fear is not a statistical calculation. That is the point of terror.
What does this mean for 2016? The more anxious Americans become about the threat of homegrown terrorism, the less reassuring they find their administration. President Barack Obama was a paragon of calm in the face of speculation about the San Bernardino attacks. He cautioned people to await the facts but pointed out such massacres bolstered the case for stricter gun control laws. He showed similar restraint following the Paris slaughter, observing that it was a “setback” in a war against Isis that was nevertheless making progress. A few days later he said that pressing on with the climate change talks in Paris would be a “rebuke” to the terrorists, who wished to disrupt the west’s way of life.