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Obama and 'terrorism': why he hesitated to use that word

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By Tuesday morning, when Obama made his second public statement, he acknowledged that he had no answers – who carried out the attack, why they did it, whether it was the act of a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or the act of a “malevolent individual.”

“Clearly we're at the beginning of our investigation,” he said. “It will take time to follow every lead and determine what happened. But we will find out. We will find whoever harmed our citizens, and we will bring them to justice.”

Since news of the explosions broke Monday afternoon, Obama has blended speed with caution and a tone of resolve as he has sought to reassure the nation. He spoke in the briefing room a little over three hours after the attacks, not because he had answers but to convey that his administration and all levels of law enforcement were on the case.  

The president’s initial hesitance to call the attack terror or terrorism was “classic Obama,” says Martin Medhurst, an expert on political rhetoric at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

“It tells us he’s a cautious speaker,” says Mr. Medhurst. “But we’ve known that about Obama for a long time. It didn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t immediately call it terror.”

Obama has come under criticism in the past for his reactions to actual or attempted terrorism, both over the speed of his response and the words he has used. On Christmas Day 2009, a Nigerian with explosives hidden in his underwear attempted to bomb a Delta Airlines flight to Detroit. Obama was criticized for waiting three days before responding publicly to the failed attack.

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