By all accounts, the death of Osama bin Laden is the greatest news of the Obama presidency so far. Media figures were jumping over themselves to declare the 2012 election already over as soon as the news was leaked on Sunday evening. Given that nearly every single American wanted this outcome for bin Laden, and President Obama delivered that outcome, the news was nearly impossible for the White House to fumble. Yet they did, and continue to do so.
Any communications or political strategist knows that you have to have a well-thought-out, intricately scheduled rollout plan for good news and bad. The more important the news, the more specific the plan. In their plan for the bin Laden raid, the White House staff should have developed likely questions the public or media would ask, so they could prepare accurate, non-classified answers as soon as the raid concluded.
The questions were easy to predict: 1) How was bin Laden killed? 2) Was he armed and/or firing at soldiers? 3) Who was with him? 4) Can we see visual evidence of his death? 5) Why did you bury him at sea?
Of course Americans are going to want to know the answers to these five obvious queries. And in the days since the mission, the White House has royally screwed up answering all of them.
The White House has conveyed several “narratives” with differing explanations of bin Laden’s death and what happened to the other people at the compound.
We don’t know if the president watched the operation (as the now-famous Situation Room photo would suggest), or simply watched CIA Director Leon Panetta describe the operation, or if there was a 25-minute blackout for all involved.
On Sunday night, the president said that bin Laden had simply been “killed” after a firefight. But the next day, he described the operation as “capture and kill.” There was a human shield shot, and then there was not.
We were told bin Laden’s body was almost immediately dumped at sea. Naturally, people want to know why. This may have been the plan for the past 10 years for really good reasons, but in a briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney could barely articulate who was present at the ceremony. We were left questioning if bin Laden’s body went straight to the USS Vinson or made a stop along the way.
And then the photos. How much worse could they have handled the potential release of the photos? Release or not release, it’s immaterial. The Obama cabinet debated itself publicly for two days (Panetta: “I don’t think there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public.”). They issued reports of the president weighing all options, confirming a photo release was in fact an option.
How was this decision not made before the operation even began? Why would you debate the decision in public, ensuring that the American people know you are unsure of whatever you decide, and thus they should be as well? President Obama virtually guaranteed controversy by not being authoritative in his decision.
On Monday morning Obama could have said that, for national security reasons, no photos would be released. If he had, he would have been done with it. It might not have been a popular decision, but it would have made him look decisive, even presidential. Instead, he announced a no-photo decision on a pre-taped interview for a news program airing four days later, again ensuring the debate lives for at least another week.
This indecision feeds into the story that the White House fed us of the president debating the very idea of the mission itself for 17 hours. If the idea is to paint President Obama as considerate and deliberative, it’s not working. Obama made the correct command decision, yet his staff is portraying him as Hamlet-like, indecisive and hesitant.
Obama indicted Americans who wanted to see the photographic evidence as wanting to “spike the football.” But it was his own amateurish communications operation that led people to start wanting them in the first place. In other words, the White House started losing public trust somewhere between Sunday night and Wednesday night, and for this, they blamed the American people.
We can trust there is no conspiracy because this White House seems incapable of being shrewd enough to pull off a conspiracy. Additionally, we know the Navy Seals well enough to trust their courage, valor and integrity. Bin Laden was killed, heroically, by Seal Team Six.
The point is that the White House’s careless use of words, lack of communications planning and misunderstanding of the weight of some of these decisions immediately started feeding public doubt.
From the moment the president stepped to the podium Sunday night, he began biting into his own approval rating bump. Scoring Osama bin Laden was a slam dunk, and the Obama team has turned it into a disputed lay-up.
This was the greatest news the president could’ve delivered, and yet the follow-up has been more like a circus act. For two years, the White House communications team and the president’s oratory skills have been lauded the world over. That may be the real conspiracy. Where is the evidence of that?
Rory Cooper is the Director of Communications at The Heritage Foundation. You can follow Rory Cooper on Twitter @rorycooper