How Obama Misstepped Into The TSA Body Scan Quagmire

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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25 Replies to “How Obama Misstepped Into The TSA Body Scan Quagmire”

  1. Thanks Sarah,

    I think people are missing the larger policy discussion that has been replaced by emotion. There is a reason why this issue bubbled up and is being pushed now. With a new Republican majority in the House, a public backlash against the TSA, will help the privatization advocates.

  2. Don’t agree. There are enough americans and im one of them who fly a lot and the xrated radiation scanners or xcessive patdowns r going too far. Plus the tsa has no business being empowered outside congress where the peoples’ representatives r made voiceless. Terrorism is not the only threat we face. Our own government no matter which party can go too far. Think about it, the guy or lady who has some regional sales job gets xrated or groped 3 to 5 times a week? What a nightmare. Fractional jet companies are getting bombed with calls right now. I know because im one of the callers and they are sayin

    g their phones are ringing off the desks. Just my opinion on the matter.

  3. privatization does not preclude the fact that these companies or peoples within these companies that would take the TSA’s place would not unionize. These people will have to live up to standards that have to be “standardized” across any company that works in this field. This is a field that is just dying to be unionized. Why you ask? I’m certainly glad you asked Jason. Because in bidding for these jobs what’s the one thing that has to be as low as possible? The security people’s wages. The security people’s benefits. If the people in Chicago have healthcare from their company, and the people in Detroit don’t what’s going to happen?

    Competitive bidding does one thing. It drives wages down. It can’t help but do that, because if you want the contract you have to be the lowest bidder. And what you usually get from the lowest bidder? The lowest trained people. Does the brightest people work for the lowest paying companies? No,

    Obama needs to get out there and say there is alternate technology and we are going to get it in place if it’s a viable and no one’s little peanuts are gonna get grabbed and no ladies are going to have someones fingers in their underwear or passing young girls images around on the Internet. this is unconscionable in my mind. this is unconscionable in my mind what other methods are available and these things are there because Bush rushed to put them in place.

  4. You don’t agree with what? I didn’t see an opinion being expressed here, just a policy examination with the political ramifications being discussed. Why can’t people separate from their emotions long enough to discuss the issue without having an opinion?

    I fly all of the time too. Does that make your opinion worth less?

  5. At first I thought you would just take the usual Obama apologist stance of ignoring any and all genuine grievances liberals may have with Obama and going straight toward accusing liberals of either ignorantly playing into a right-wing agenda or not “understanding” how politics work, but after the usual notes you issue a shockingly explicit endorsement of placing security over liberty (which, if I recall correctly, is a cowardly attitude Ben Franklin had some strong words about). Nowhere do you acknowledge that there are serious problems with the TSA policy that cannot and shouldn’t wait (aside from the numerous civil liberties issues, there’s the health concerns regarding screenings and how the body searches pose a harsh burden on victims of sexual assault). The way you ignore these other issues and cast the extremely important question of civil liberties as just “emotional” (as if all Americans should just accept any violation of their privacy and bodily integrity, as long as there’s a goodreason!) made me queasy and made me despair even more for the future of progressive politics in the US, which I didn’t think was possible at this point.

    I mean, seriously, with statements like “Civil liberties aren’t worth much when al-Qaeda blows up the plane that you are riding on” I have to wonder if this is an article written for a self-described liberal blog or for WorldNetDaily!

    I wouldn’t have believed it, but you make me envy conservatives. At least their politicians and pundits pretend to give a damn about their concerns and grievances. Us American leftists have ours treated with open contempt from people like you and even from the Obama administration itself.

  6. This is a place for dialogue not demagogues which means you need to move along because you share another thing with conservatives which is reading comprehension problem. Article states that the American people feel this way, not that author agrees with it. I guess you want your kool aid straight up with no information that you don’t agree with.

  7. Thank goodness you’re not in charge of our free speech and right to be heard since you seem to be of the mind that there’s only one right thing to say about this matter and it has to agree with you. Personally I think there are issues with tsa but I think the right’s political usage of them is even more disturbing because it goes against everything I believe in as a Democrat. Where were you when Bush was doing this, when he passed this law, because these are his scanners and as you might notice it takes a while to get these things implemented so it’s not like we can just scrap them. They need to train the tsa agents better an unionize, yes, if that’s what it takes. And I agree with Shiva that Obama needs to come out and talk about the replacement machines.

  8. Great job J. I didn’t trust this when it came out and Rmuse’s story was great info then this. By the way, great job with the new writers too:-) I wish Obama would use his bully pulpit more. Here he is trying to run the country and that pathetic Palin person is trying to engage him in a crapfest while Rome burns. Ugh.

  9. Michael Chertoff is to blame for this – and the lobbyists for the scanners and GWB. DOGS are the answer! But who will lobby for them?

  10. “Article states that the American people feel this way, not that author agrees with it.”

    Where does it state that? If anything the article seems to be suggesting the opposite: “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.”

    So either the American people are dissatisfied with the TSA screenings and are easily swayed by “emotional” arguments, or they agree with Obama’s security concerns. You can’t have it both ways.

    Also, yes, by disagreeing with the dominant Democrat meme and with the administration in power clearly I am “drinking the kool aid.” Jesus Christ.

  11. Rather than addressing my points, you jump right to the surreal “By expressing a dissenting opinion, you’re oppressing other people’s free speech!” argument. Nicely done.

    “Where were you when Bush was doing this”

    Well, I was opposing Bush’s security state measures then too. Unlike you and the author of the article, I find such measures as unacceptable coming from a Democratic president as I do from a Republican one.

    “en he passed this law, because these are his scanners and as you might notice it takes a while to get these things implemented so it’s not like we can just scrap them. ”

    Ah, I was wondering when someone was going to bring in the ol’ “But as President, Obama is completely and utterly powerless!” defense.

    Also clearly this argument doesn’t get around the civil liberties issues. If Bush had opened internment camps for Muslims late in his last term, by this logic, you might as well be arguing that it would be impractical for Obama to stop using them since they’re already paid for.

    Besides which, blaming everything on Bush obscures the fact that lots of people are financially invested in seeing the machines used…including, yes, Democrats and people connected with the Obama administration.

    But, no, let’s just reduce this to yet another partisan, right vs. left issue! Civil liberties and the 4th Amendment are so passe, anyway.

  12. The next terrorist attack may well be in a school. They do like to repeat. How will all of this BS protect schools?

  13. Oh, and the ACLU has received over 900 complaints from air travelers complaining about the TSA’s new policies. So I guess the ACLU and those hundreds of people are all right-wing patsies? (Although, to be fair, that would be easier for you all to accept than having to admit that Obama is wrong).

  14. Also I shouldn’t have to point out the sweet, delicious irony of you writing “you seem to be of the mind that there’s only one right thing to say about this matter and it has to agree with you” in defense of an article where the thesis is “Everyone who disagrees with me is being duped!” but…ah, what the hell, I just did!

  15. This wasn’t an opinion piece. It was a policy piece. Do you have any comment on the public policy model behind the hysteria? If not, I think the point of the post eluded you.

  16. if a plane comes down, you can kiss all of your civil liberties goodbye and the republicans won’t waste one second before accusing democrats of being weak on security after they drove this hysteria.

  17. Agree- Mother Jones wrote “if you’re really worried about civil liberties you should welcome nearly anything legal that protects air travel from explosives, even the things that are really annoying and only modestly useful.” Because if a bomb goes off you will lose them all, and gladly. People have short memories.

  18. Hi Chad,

    The dominant Democratic meme is a matter of where you get your news, I guess, and perhaps that’s where the disconnect is happening. We appreciate your POV, this is a place for debate and you kept yours clean. That said, Jason is very knowledgeable about public policy and I have to agree that his point was about the policy strategy, not the actual TSA scanner issue, which is why he titled it misstep by Obama. I don’t believe the scanner issue has been fully explored from either side. There are issues with it. However, it’s a strawman to say that Jason’s point about the “safety” of Americans being the way PO should have brought this up means he thinks that is accurate or is advocating for it. He’s pointing out how it could have been “sold”, which is part of the job of President, no matter what we’d like to believe. Obama is not good at selling things like this and that was the broader point, as I can see it. It’s worth considering, however, that if another bomb goes off on a plane, Americans will be asked to turn over even more rights and the majority will do it willingly. To this end, it benefits all of us to come up with a solution to this problem that is effective, less invasive if possible, and not dangerous to our health. I’d like to think we could debate these issues without falling prey to the hot buttons, and instead allow nuanced thought to prevail. Different opinions are a part of that process. To that end, thanks for your thoughts.

  19. Again, I don’t think the author was suggesting that there are not valid issues with the TSA scanners or valid complaints. That point is not the same as the policy point, though both merit debate. This is what he meant by a zero sum game. It’s not one or another. Or rather, it shouldn’t be.

  20. Chad,

    I know this hard for you to comprehend in today’s media environment, but I didn’t say whether I agreed or disagreed because the topic of my post was about the underlying policy debate over the privatization of the TSA. My post was not about the validity of the current procedures. I know the policy discussion went way over your head.

    Let me put it to you this way, every president since the run up to the Spanish-American War has made the national security argument the same way, and every single time it works. I didn’t say whether it was right or wrong because the purpose of the post was not to defend either position, but to examine the underlying policy struggle beneath the emotional debate. You are attaching a dynamic to the post that was not present, and that I never intended to be there.

    If I should ever write something about the eternal struggle between civil liberties and national security, and if you Google me you’ll see I covered that topic plenty during the Bush years, it will features the phrase civil liberties in the title. This post didn’t because it wasn’t about that. Please stop trying to assign an opinion to me that I did not express.

  21. Judging by these comments, many of the detractors totally miss the point of the article. There can be no discourse when there is no understanding of a statement or comment. Great article. Apparently, there are those on the Left who are no different than the neo-cons, and therefore not relevant. It’s is extremely difficult to debate or discuss policy with single-minded dolts, and its the reason the Left is so fractured. I am disappointed by these “commentators” who comment without understanding. It reeks of teabaggers and Beck. Palin would be proud.

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