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Does 'No-drama Obama' soothe nation's fears?

By Kristi Keck, CNN
President Obama has faced criticism for how he responded to the attempted terrorist attack.
President Obama has faced criticism for how he responded to the attempted terrorist attack.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama made first on-camera remarks three days after attempted terrorist attack
  • President facing criticism he's been too reserved in his response
  • Obama balancing reassuring the public with sticking to his policy of engagement, expert says
  • Observers watching to see what tone he takes in remarks Tuesday

(CNN) -- In the days since a botched attempt to blow up a passenger plane, President Obama has faced criticism that he was too cool, too weak and too late in his response to the near-tragedy.

The president, who was vacationing in Hawaii at the time, made his first on-camera statement three days after the Christmas Day attack, detailing reviews he ordered of air travel policies.

"The American people should be assured that we are doing everything in our power to keep you and your family safe and secure during this busy holiday season," said Obama, who appeared in a casual open-neck shirt with no tie.

The next day, Obama gave another statement, this time with tougher language. "A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable," he said.

The president said that given the warning signs, the suspect should have never been allowed to board. Had critical information been shared among agencies, "a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged," he said.

Still, critics wanted more. Former Vice President Dick Cheney blasted Obama, saying the administration's response is proof that the president "is trying to pretend we are not at war."

Republican strategist Rich Galen said while no one is blaming Obama for the failure of the counterterrorism system, people are questioning the administration's message.

In the administration's first response to the incident, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Americans two days after the indicant that the system in place worked. She later dialed back her comments, saying "no one is happy or satisfied" with how the system performed.

Galen said it was the lack of organization among Obama's team that caused concern.

Video: White House not tough on terror?
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"I think what got everybody's attention was the reaction of the administration after the event from Secretary Napolitano to the fact that the president didn't come out for three days. That's sort of got everybody's antenna up," Galen said.

It's not the first time Obama has come under fire for his response to a crisis. He was criticized for not speaking out more strongly on the day of the Fort Hood shootings, and he faced scrutiny during the campaign for not immediately condemning Russia when the country invaded Georgia.

Obama is not the only president to face such criticism. "Presidents are always criticized this way. And there is always something behind it, something deeper," presidential historian Doug Wead said in an e-mail.

"Behind the GOP criticism that the president should have been out front on this, reassuring the American people, reacting quicker, is the charge that he is not as focused on American security as was President Bush," said Wead, who served as a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and as an informal adviser to President George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

Bush was not subjected to criticisms when he waited six days to respond to Richard Reid's attempted shoe-bombing of an airline on December 22, 2001. However, he was rebuked for his response to Hurricane Katrina.

"What was behind the criticism of his delayed concern [over Katrina] was the charge that he did not care enough about the poor, that he didn't understand. There was a disconnect," Wead said. "In both [the Obama and Bush] cases, the tardy response is tied to a deeper concern."

After meeting with his security team on Tuesday, Obama was a little more blunt in his assessment of what went wrong in the screening system, saying it failed -- not that intelligence wasn't gathered but that it wasn't shared.

CNN political analyst David Gergen described Obama's tone on Tuesday as "smoldering."

"I don't think I've seen him quite that sort of intense and sort of angry," Gergen said.

Gergen said he thought Obama's apparent anger was directed at the entire U.S. intelligence community for not connecting the dots.

Obama must walk a fine line in what tone he projects in addressing a crisis, one expert says.

"The quandary is that on the one hand he has to provide reassurance to the American people by responding with strength, and yet at the same time he wants to maintain the policy of engagement," said John Quelch, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of "Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy."

Obama campaigned on what he described as "tough but engaged diplomacy." Then-candidate Obama said he wanted to meet with leaders of hostile nations because "the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous."

Obama has been articulating his engagement strategy since before taking office, but his logic has not been fully accepted by the public. Telling the public what it wants to hear instead of sticking with his approach, however, would undermine the strategy, Quelch said.

"The engagement strategy has to be sustained for more than one year in order for it to bite, in order for the rest of the world to take it credibly," he said.

"Extremists on the other side have no interest in engagement being effective in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the Arab street," he said.

To get the public to appreciate his strategy, Obama needs to do a better job explaining why it's worth investing in, while also assuring people that effective military action "to take out the bad guys" is being implemented behind the scenes, Quelch said.

"He has to try to educate the public that if they become righteously indignant and pressure the administration to respond precipitously, they are playing into the hands of the extremist," he said.

Obama's remarks Tuesday follow a meeting with members of his national security team. The president said their discussion will focus on "ongoing reviews as well as security enhancements and intelligence-sharing improvements in our homeland security and counterterrorism operations."