The Obama administration claim that "the system worked" after a failed aircraft bombing was not quite as jolting as President George W. Bush's: "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" when New Orleans was sinking under deadly Hurricane Katrina. But both comments raised disturbing questions about presidential response in a time of crisis.
Bush's praise for his beleaguered FEMA director, Michael Brown, came while starving storm evacuees remained trapped in the Louisiana Superdome stadium and victims' bodies bloated in the flooded streets. It became a clarion call for all that his administration did wrong during the 2005 calamity — and grew into a symbol for all that people disliked about Bush.
Obama is dealing with a crisis of an entirely different sort, Friday's attempt by a 23-year-old Nigerian to blow up a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam.
But though it ended with only a fire that was quickly put out, no lives lost and the man in custody, it has raised alarm about the government's performance.
- How did airport security, improved at much cost after the 2001 terrorist attacks, miss the explosives concealed on the bomber's body?
- How did the terrorist watchlist system allow Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to both keep his American tourist visa and avoid extra flight screening despite his father telling authorities his concerns about the younger man's radicalization?
- Why didn't Abdulmutallab's lack of luggage, and cash purchase for an international flight, raise suspicions?
- Why was the plot thwarted only by an apparent explosive malfunction and fellow passengers' aggressive action?
Amid those questions, administration officials' repeated statements Sunday that "the system worked" were jarring. They made it sound like the administration does not get it, like it is paying too much attention to political fallout and too little to public fears.
Officials insist the assertion, made by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on television talk shows, referred only to procedures scrambled into place after the incident to protect flights and heighten security.
They say it is being purposely taken out of context by partisans.
They note Obama ordered two reviews, of the nation's multilayered terrorist watchlist system and of airport security procedures, something he clearly would not do if he believed there were no flaws.
Gibbs and Napolitano also were hoping, with the busy holiday travel season still in full force, to instill public confidence in the nation's air safety system.
"The system worked," Napolitano declared on CNN television during questioning about the lapses that let Abdulmutallab and his devices onto the plane. Gibbs used nearly the same language on CBS television, saying that "in many ways, this system has worked," without elaborating.
Later that same day, Napolitano put it differently on ABC television, saying "once the incident occurred, the system worked." She tried again on Monday, saying in a round of TV interviews that "our system did not work in this instance. No one is happy or satisfied with that."
But the damage was done.
Members of Congress — Republicans, but Democrats too — were incredulous that the "system worked" could be used in any context to describe what happened. "It is insulting that the Obama administration would make such a claim," Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee — who is running for governor in Michigan — said in a campaign e-mail.
Phrases do matter. Sometimes they take on a life of their own, with context and nuance forgotten, and come to represent larger beliefs or fears about a politician.
For Bush, the "heckuva job" comment more than four years into his presidency fit into an already well-developed critical narrative, that he was loyal to lieutenants to a fault, hands-off on even important matters and uninterested in detail.
For Obama, still short of one year in office, his narrative, critical or otherwise, is not set yet.
Nonetheless, rumblings keep resurfacing about emotional distance, even coldness. Whether it's Wall Street bonuses or terrorist near-disaster, people wonder whether he feels as they do or ever acts out of passion.
And the comment is not the only part of Obama's response that is drawing questions.
Until Monday, the president had not been heard from publicly since the Friday scare. He was ordering stepped-up security measures and after-action reviews behind the scenes, but also enjoying his Hawaiian vacation with games of golf, basketball and tennis and trips to the beach.
He drew questions about his level of involvement by not getting his first briefing on the incident until two hours after it was all over — and then only for 15 minutes, when he departed for the gym.
Aides defended the low-key approach as purposeful, designed to not glorify the attempted attack with undue presidential attention and perhaps encourage other terrorists.
Regardless, on Monday, the White House shifted strategy.
Napolitano was sent out to clarify the Sunday comments.
And Obama — still the administration's best, some say only, fixer — decided to talk to the public himself.
Benefiting from not being the one who made the initial remarks, he added his own words, mixing calm with urgency and resolve.
"Had the suspect succeeded in bringing down that plane, it could have killed nearly 300 passengers and crew, innocent civilians preparing to celebrate the holidays with their families and friends," he said, then adding: "We will do everything in our power to protect our country."
Obama also made a promise he may find hard to keep: "We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable."
Bush made a similar pledge in the early days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, promising the capture of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." "He may hide for a while, but we'll get him," Bush said. But after years went by with that promise unfulfilled, Bush stopped making such statements.
Late in Obama's White House run, now-Vice President Joe Biden made newspaper headlines and caused campaign headaches by saying his running mate would, if elected, face international crisis early on from those eager "to test the mettle of this guy."
With the first year still not over, that test has come.