Boston Bombing Could Reset National Political Debate

Obama, like George W. Bush, may find unpredictable events shape his presidency.

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A police officer wheels an injured boy down Boylston Street as medical workers carry an injured runner after an explosion during the Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013.

Although it's unclear who was responsible, the Boston bombings are likely to again place terrorism at the top of the national agenda and put President Obama to the test as a leader in a time of crisis.

Authorities are still investigating who caused the two lethal explosions at the Boston Marathon Monday, but Obama is making sure that Americans know he is on the case and eager to bring the perpetrators to justice. The reality is that Obama's response is likely to define his administration and, more important, help determine whether Americans feel safe in their own country for the foreseeable future.

[PHOTOS: Deadly Explosions Hit Boston Marathon]

If the incident turns out to be terrorism, Obama will never be able to repeat the mantra that predecessor George W. Bush's supporters used in describing his administration's efforts to protect the homeland after 9/11: He kept us safe. http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/04/15/bomb-experts-offer-analysis-based-on-details-from-boston-marathon-explosions

Monday's incident was the first big bombing in the United States since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. U.S. officials acknowledge that some potentially serious incidents were foiled, and there was a mass killing which many defined as an act of terrorism in November 2009. That's when Army Major Nidal M. Hassan fatally shot 13 people and wounded 30 more at Fort Hood, Texas.

But the Boston bombings struck at the heart of a major American city. And the incident could again make fighting terrorism the government's highest priority, perhaps reducing the urgency of the major ongoing debates in Washington over the budget deficit, immigration, and gun control.

[SEE: U.S. News's Live Coverage of Explosions at Boston Marathon]

"In some ways, this ruptures the psyche," said Juan Carlos Zarate, deputy national security adviser under President Bush. Zarate told the Los Angeles Times, "Now we have that soft target hit that we have imagined but not seen...since 9/11. We don't know who perpetrated it--we'll have to see. But regardless, it shatters the sense of security we've had, especially coming at an event like this."

 

About an hour before the Boston bombings, I happened to be interviewing Republican pollster Bill McInturff about the political climate, and he made a prescient comment. "A president's agenda often gets hijacked by big events" that demand his attention and change his priorities, McInturff told me. This could be what happens in the wake of the Boston tragedy.

The president's first response was not only to express solidarity with the Boston victims but to pledge to punish the people whom Bush used to call "the evil doers." "Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups, will feel the full weight of justice," the president declared.

[READ: Death, Amputations Reported After Explosions]

This will only be the start of the government's response. There will now be calls for more stringent domestic surveillance, additional police powers, stronger security measures and a tougher overall stance in rooting out potential terrorists before they strike.

Oddly enough, Bush made an indirect reference to his anti-terrorism policies last week when he told the Dallas Morning News that he remains "comfortable with what I did" during his eight years in office, including his global war on terror.

Now President Obama could face similar choices as he decides what to do about the Boston bombings.

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