As the Brussels attacks jarred Europe and sent shockwaves through U.S. politics, President Barack Obama stuck to his agenda: a speech to the Cuban people and a baseball game.
Critics such as Republican presidential candidate John Kasich railed at Obama for failing to return to the U.S. immediately. But the President argued that sticking to his schedule denied terrorists any victory in their goal of upending daily life.
“The whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people’s ordinary lives,” Obama said Tuesday in Havana when asked if he had second thoughts about attending the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
The clashing approaches offer a window into the president’s worldview — his desire to emphasize long-term interests over short-term emergencies and project calm at a time of high public concern. It’s a dynamic that has sometimes caused him problems, leaving aides concerned that Obama’s cool can make him seem detached from Americans seeking reassurance.
He gave brief remarks following the attack before continuing with his regularly schedule speech to the Cuban people focusing on opening a new era with the island nation. The White House indicated soon after that his schedule for the day and the trip wouldn’t change.
While the President’s whereabouts or demeanor have little bearing on what European and security officials say is very close collaboration, it gave political opponents an easy target.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump tweeted that “this madness must be stopped and I will stop it.”
Kasich also took to Twitter to say that “the president must return home immediately and get to work with our allies to respond with strength against the enemies of the west.”
And at a news conference, the Ohio governor later said, “If I was in Cuba right now, the last thing I would be doing is going to a baseball game.”
In Havana, Obama not only stayed at the game, but he used another baseball example to convey the kind of cool toughness he wants to see from Americans in times of national stress. He cited the peppery pre-game speech that Red Sox player David Ortiz gave the day after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Ortiz took to the field and urged the fans to “stay strong,” telling the crowd that “this is our f****** city and nobody’s gonna dictate our freedom.”
Obama said on Tuesday that “that is the kind of resilience and the kind of strength we have to continually show in the face of these terrorists.”
“What they can do is scare,” Obama said, “and make people afraid and disrupt our daily lives and divide us. And as long as we don’t allow that to happen, we’re gonna be okay.”
The 60-nation coalition that is “pounding” ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the attack, will continue to pursue the group, Obama noted.
The reality, say U.S. and European officials, is that the President’s whereabouts have little impact on an extremely close and coordinated counterterrorism effort — or on his ability to conduct international business.
Early Tuesday morning, after being briefed on the attacks, Obama called the Belgian Prime Minister to offer condolences and any assistance necessary in investigating the attacks and bringing the killers to justice.
“The President can operate anywhere in the world, and he has demonstrated that,” a Democratic member of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, told CNN’s “At This Hour.”
Swalwell said that Obama had been briefed by intelligence officials and “is going to go about his business and make sure that those in command and in position are acting accordingly.”
“We need to trust that that’s going to happen,” Swalwell added.
But sometimes more than trust is demanded. During a November trip to Asia, during which Obama hoped to tout deepening U.S. ties to the region, he came under fire from a press corps that wanted to know why he wasn’t addressing the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris just days earlier.
He acknowledged in a December off-the-record conversation with news columnists reported by The New York Times that his low-key approach left Americans’ worried that he wasn’t doing enough to ensure their security.
If that experience didn’t seem to change his approach Tuesday, the reason may lie in a lengthy recent profile in The Atlantic magazine. That piece described the President as frustrated that terrorism keeps swamping his long-term priorities, including improving ties to Latin America and intensifying links to Asia.
The same profile notes Obama’s admiration for Israeli resilience in the face of repeated attacks. It describes his penchant for reminding his advisors that more Americans die because of guns or accidents in the bathtub — and those advisers’ efforts to keep Obama doing this too publicly because it might make him seem insensitive to public fears.
Behind the scenes, U.S. and European officials say that cooperation that began in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is continually improving. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, intelligence agencies and the State Department work closely with their counterparts to exchange information.
There are challenges, according to one European diplomat who spoke anonymously to discuss intelligence-sharing, including smaller countries within Europe that don’t have the intelligence-collecting capacity of larger countries.
“But it flows very quickly and easily,” the diplomat said, when the U.S. or Europe have “partial info or a profile, a little piece of the puzzle, for instance, an alias” of a suspected terrorist.
Tina Kaidanow, the State Department’s ambassador for counterterrorism, told a Washington audience last month that “while there is still a great deal of work to do, we are beginning to see tangible progress,” including information-sharing agreements between the U.S. and dozens of international partners to assist efforts to identify, track and deter the travel of suspected terrorists.
Other U.S. officials pointed to the Brussels attacks as a sign that the campaign against ISIS is succeeding.
A senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday that while the U.S. is not able to confirm ISIS’ claims of responsibility for the attacks in Belgium, the U.S. believes the group, also know as Daesh, has been resorting to these types of traditional terror attacks in response to their loss of territory and infrastructure in Iraq and Syria.
“You’re starting to see Daesh resort more and more to these kinds of attacks, to this kind of violence,” the official said, “because they are being pressured and squeezed territorially and organizationally inside Iraq and Syria.”
As ISIS’ territory and infrastructure are shrinking, the official said, “they are now resorting to more typical terrorist tactics to sow fear.”