President Obama’s actions this week since the death of Osama bin Laden are getting mixed reviews. Some, like Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, thought his tone was appropriately humble at his visit yesterday to Ground Zero. “The president was visible to the general public only from a distance, slim and silver-headed and discreet in a dark suit and bright necktie, and he made no public remarks,” she wrote. Later, he had a private lunch with firefighters and made only brief remarks. Others, Peggy Noonan among them, said the visit had the feel of doing a victory lap. Noonan thinks Obama is making a big mistake: “He has spent almost every moment since his Sunday night speech displaying both a tin ear and a chronic tendency to misunderstand his own country. His refusal to release more evidence that Osama is dead is allowing a great story to dissolve into a mystery. He is letting a triumph turn into a conspiracy theory.”
The ongoing corrections issued by the White House about events and information after the raid isn’t helping things; neither is the debate about whether to release the photos. No wonder he’s getting only a 5 percent bounce in the polls this week; that “well-oiled machine” feel we had seems to be more about the Navy SEALs than the White House.
As for the Ground Zero visit, it was gracious of President Obama to invite former President Bush; it was just as gracious for President Bush to politely decline. There seem to be just as many people who think President Bush should have joined President Obama at the ceremony as those who think it was proper he stayed away. David Gergen of CNN pointed out that this is part of the Bush family philosophy: "He and his family ... have an old-fashioned view, that we only have one president at a time ... I think this is quite genuine on the part of President Bush." [Vote now: Which president deserves credit for Osama bin Laden’s demise?]
Gergen is absolutely right. Both former President Bushes have done high-profile, bipartisan events—but in the past, they’ve done them for humanitarian emergencies, such as for aid after the Indonesian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina relief. They’ve both teamed up with President Clinton, especially to promote the cause of volunteerism. In those cases, there is no mistaking anyone’s motives in trying to help after a natural disaster. But going to Ground Zero after bin Laden’s death is much more political, more of a complicated statement about life after 9/11. Bush was right to politely decline. His concern about political appearances and about the proper role of a former president are very genuine. It was a good call.