How Obama Misstepped Into The TSA Body Scan Quagmire

Nov 26 2010 Published by under Featured News

In politics everything happens for a reason. There are very few coincidences, which has become evident once again by the furor over new TSA screening procedures and equipment. Beneath the emotional outrage there is a policy battle taking place on the battlefield of public emotion, and the Obama administration’s reluctance to engage in this realm has resulted in more criticism for the President.

In an interview with Barbara Walters that will air tonight, Obama admitted that the TSA screening procedures are a process that will have to evolve.

Here is the video:

When asked by Barbara Walters about the TSA screening procedures, Obama said, “This is gonna be something that evolves. We are gonna have to work on it. I understand people’s frustrations with it, but I also know that if there was an explosion in the air that killed a couple of hundred people…and it turned out that we could have prevented it possibly… that would be something that would be pretty upsetting to most of us — including me.”

One of the most consistent mistakes that the Obama administration has made on various issues is that they often take the reactive position. Instead of pro-actively defining the TSA changes in emotional terms, “These changes are necessary to keep America safe,” and thereby shaping the parameters of opposition response, the Obama administration has placed themselves in a position where they have to defensively explain their position to an audience that has already had their emotional response defined for them.

This pattern has become common as it relates to areas of policy that become infused with emotion. Obama was on the defensive over healthcare reform. His administration has been on the defensive on DADT. In almost any policy debate where emotion can be infused and manipulated, Obama’s opposition has had free rein to define the mood. The President has the power to set the agenda and define emotion, but Obama has struggled in this area. If when the TSA changes would have been announced the administration would have made the preemptive emotional argument in favor of national security, much of this criticism would have never gotten off the ground.

The President could have used an old, but in this case accurate, Bush and GOP argument, that national security, especially over the holidays where there is a documented history of attempted attacks, has to be the top priority for the nation. He could have stressed that better technology is on the way, and processes will be consistently reviewed, but his job is first and foremost to keep Americans safe. Civil liberties aren’t worth much when al-Qaeda blows up the plane that you are riding on.

At the root of the emotional battle for public support is a political and public policy tug of war. The political battle is something that almost everyone sees. The opponents of the President are using this issue to make the case that he is out of touch. Since 2008, Republicans have been trying to lower the personal popularity of Obama. The TSA body scan issue is their latest attempt, but beyond the obvious political battle is a public policy debate.

The best way to understand the public policy element of the TSA debate is with the garbage can model of policy making. According to the model, policy solutions are produced, and then discarded, or placed in a garbage can until an appropriate problem comes along to fit the solution. When the problem does arise, the garbage can is sorted through as appropriate policy remedies are sought.

In the case of the TSA, the privatization solution has been in the garbage can for almost a decade. As soon as the post-9/11 discussion turned to improved airport security, many on the right saw the then new TSA as a chance to stretch their privatization ideology into a whole new area. Even before these current changes were implemented, arguments were being floated as early as January 2010 that the TSA should be privatized. The privatization advocates have held on to their “solution” and have been waiting for the “problem” to present itself.

In order for momentum to build for their solution, those who wish to privatize the TSA must get public opinion on their side. To do this, they have to transform the public perception of the TSA from being something that keeps America safe to an evil element of big government that is violating our civil liberties. Notice that the question of what would be best option to keep America safe is not a part of the discussion. This isn’t about national security. It’s about privatization. The public policy debate has been shifted from the functionality of the TSA to the very character of the agency itself.

If the Obama administration would have stressed the President’s duty to keep America safe, and framed and defined the TSA body scan issue as one of national security, the privatization ideologues would have never had the “problem” that they needed in order to propose their “solution.” Obama walked into a trap that has been years in the making, and you can bet your bottom dollar, that in January the new Republican controlled House will propose the privatization of the TSA. In this context, the civil liberties argument was nothing more than an emotional frame designed to manipulate the public, which far too many people on both the right and left have fallen for.

Obama now faces the unenviable position of having to defend something which no one likes, TSA screenings, during height of the holiday travel season. However, he and his administration put themselves in this position by letting their emotional argument blind spot be taken advantage of. In the post-9/11 era, rightly or wrongly, the national security argument has always triumphed over civil liberties concerns. Obama has a very powerful argument on his side which he has started to and will continue to use.

The issue of airport security really is a matter of life and death, and from Obama or any president’s perspective invasive security is a better alternative than another terrorist attack occurring on American soil. Obama has always had the right argument, but he shouldn’t have waited so long to make it.

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