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White House Says It Should Have Sent More Senior Official To Unity March


The White House did something unusual today. It admitted it made a mistake. President Obama has been widely criticized for not attending the huge anti-terrorism march in Paris yesterday and for not sending the vice president or another senior cabinet official. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now to talk about this and more. The White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest got a lot of questions about this today. What'd he say?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, he essentially said the White House agrees that the criticism of the president's decision not to go to the march, not to send Vice President Biden, was fair. And he delivered a rare White House mea culpa.

JOSH EARNEST: We agree that we should've sent someone with a higher profile, in addition to the ambassador to France.

LIASSON: What Josh Earnest wouldn't do is explain why the initial decision was made other than to suggest that security issues were a concern - securing an outdoor event when the American president or even vice president is present can be very disruptive. He also mentioned that there was a very short period of time between when the march was announced and when it happened, just about 36 hours. But presidents do travel on short notice. Earnest couldn't say what the president did instead of going to the march on Sunday or explain the fact that the vice president didn't seem to have any competing schedule or why Attorney General Holder, who was in Paris this weekend for counterterrorism meetings, had to rush home to Washington instead of joining the march.

BLOCK: And we should point out, there were any number of other world leaders who were there - the British prime minister, the German chancellor, the Israeli president, the Palestinian president...

LIASSON: Palestinian leader - yes, 40 world leaders.

BLOCK: Where is the criticism coming from, Mara? And is this different from regular partisan bickering that we hear all the time?

LIASSON: Some of it is coming from the president's Republican opponents, to be sure, and that is to be expected. But there really was a very broad spectrum of criticism. I mean, some former U.S. diplomats called the decision stunning. One of them said it was a poster child for tone-deafness; there's not an excuse in the universe for him not going. And then of course there was the inevitable New York tabloid headline that said, "Sorry Charlie: Obama's Team AWOL At Paris Rally."

BLOCK: Referring to Charlie Hebdo, the target of the attack.

How big a deal is this, do you think, as a political question?

LIASSON: I think as a domestic political matter, it's probably not that big a deal. The White House has said over and over again the U.S. stands with France. The French ambassador came over to the White House today to meet with counterterrorism officials. We are allies with France in the fight against terrorism. Next month the president is going to host world leaders at the White House for a summit meeting on preventing terrorism.

I think the American people are not as consumed with whether the president went to the march, but they do want to know what the U.S. strategy is to keep this kind of attack from happening here. So I think the bigger question is what is the strategy to fight radical Islamic terrorism? Should more troops be sent to the Middle East to fight ISIS? Should the Europeans spend more money and time tracking returning foreign fighters? What's the U.S. doing at home? What's the strategy inside the Muslim community for rooting out violent extremists?

I think those are the in-questions that most Americans outside the kind of, media political elite, where we live, care about.

BLOCK: Well, so the White House today is basically acknowledging they messed up on the symbolism of the moment. The images that will be captured of yesterday's march will not have a prominent American presence there. Is it just symbolism that we're talking about, or is there some bigger issue here?

LIASSON: Well, I think there is a bigger issue. I think the initial decision not to go does illustrate a foreign policy debate that's going on inside both parties. Inside the Democratic Party you've got the Clintonites, kind of the more muscular foreign-policy people, who are indispensablists, think that the U.S. is the indispensable nation, thinks that the U.S. should lead almost everywhere, be out in front of the parade, literally, in this case. And then there's the Obama camp I think where the president often comes down reflexibly, which is not isolationism but it's leading from behind - supporting other countries as they take the lead to solve problems on their own soil. And there's a similar debate going on in the Republican Party, too. So I think the symbolism is important, but there is a bigger backdrop.

BLOCK: OK. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.