With the anniversary of the September 11 attacks once again upon us, Bush's Law of Bin Laden is also again on display. That is, in the Bush playbook, the threat posed by Osama Bin Laden is directly proportional to the threat to the President's own political standing.
At the White House on Wednesday, press secretary Dana Perino played down the Bin Laden danger to her lame-duck boss' flatline political standing, if not to the American people:
Q: But Osama bin Laden is the one that - you keep talking about his lieutenants, and, yes, they are very important, but Osama bin Laden was the mastermind of 9/11 -
PERINO: No, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of 9/11, and he's sitting in jail right now.
But back in January 2006, President Bush was singing a much different tune. Trying to fight back against the growing public outcry over his illegal domestic wiretapping program, President Bush used the Bin Laden bogeyman during remarks at the National Security Agency. Bush lashed out at his critics:
All I would ask them to do is listen to the words of Osama bin Laden and take him seriously. When he says he's going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it. I take it seriously, and the people of NSA take it seriously.
By May 2007, Bush turned to the specter of Bin Laden to justify both his regime of surveillance at home and his war without end in Iraq. During a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy, the President outlined a plot that connected Osama bin Laden and the head of al Qaeda in Iraq to terror plans intended to hit U.S. interests and the United States itself. A serious Bush intoned:
In January of last year, Osama bin Laden warned the American people: "Operations are under preparation and you will see them on your own ground once they are finished."
Of course, George W. Bush did not take Bin Laden seriously five years earlier. Questioned about his silence regarding Bin Laden in the months following the American failure to capture the Al Qaeda chieftain in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, a nonchalant Bush on March 13, 2002 downplayed his significance:
So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you...I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him.
Bush may have been embarrassed by his failure to capture Bin Laden in 2002, but by the fall of 2004, he faced the prospect of American voters who seemed to recall the murder of 3,000 of their countrymen. In the third presidential debate with John Kerry, a childlike Bush on October 13, 2004 tried for a "do over" of his statement two and a half years earlier:
Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course we're worried about Osama bin Laden.
Which brings us full circle. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush used the specter of Osama Bin Laden to rally what had been a faltering presidency. In a show of frontier bravado, Bush talked tough about Bin Laden just days after the 9/11 attacks:
There's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, "Wanted: Dead or Alive."
Seven years later, it is the Bush presidency itself which is dead. Bin Laden remains at large even as Bush's calamitous tenure winds down. In his waning days in office, George W. Bush is simply immune to further declines in popularity.
Which, according to Bush's Law, must mean Osama Bin Laden doesn't matter much anymore.
(This piece is crossposted at Perrspectives.)