The killing of Osama bin Laden is a telling example of the maxim to expect the unexpected. Just when President Obama looked like he was hitting his administration’s nadir, he oversaw top-secret efforts to kill the world’s most wanted terrorist.
It gives Obama the mantle of strong leadership that was so elusive the last several months. Events, both at home and abroad, were overtaking him, and he had difficulty keeping up.
The mission in Libya was losing public favor. Gas prices shot up. The economy kept sputtering. Obama brandished his long-form birth certificate to prove, again, he was born in Hawaii, taking the bait of one of the world’s biggest publicity hounds, Donald Trump. The president even chafed, in his interview last week with Oprah Winfrey, at being stuck in the White House bubble.
But his mission-accomplished moment changed all that and put him front and center as a take-charge guy defending the country. It will be difficult for a Republican challenger to effectively question his national security credentials now. There won’t be any GOP equivalent of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad. This is Obama’s most significant achievement as president, and one he’ll remind voters of in his reelection campaign.
The photos of the president and his national security team watching the raid unfold underscore how risky a decision it was to send U.S. forces to Abbottabad. As Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn wrote Tuesday, the operation was a “potent combination of American force and presidential decisiveness.” This from the former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.
Don’t expect many more GOP comparisons of Obama to President Jimmy Carter, whose feckless leadership during the Iranian hostage crisis doomed his reelection. Obama’s own indecisiveness on Libya, his inconsistent handling of Middle East countries dealing with the Arab spring, and flip-flopping on his campaign promise to keep the Guantanamo Bay detention center open gave Republicans 1970s flashbacks. Questioning Obama’s ability to “lead” had become a staple of Republican talking points in recent weeks. Not anymore.
“Obama now has what every Democratic president running for reelection desperately hopes for—street cred on foreign policy issues,” said one senior Republican strategist. “Fairly or unfairly, this is an accomplishment that will blunt foreign policy criticism from the right in 2012.”
But bin Laden’s death is unlikely to change the fundamental trajectory of the presidential campaign. The 2012 presidential election will be a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy. If national security wasn’t one of the top issues for voters with bin Laden still on the loose, it won’t likely be at the top of voters’ minds a year and a half after he was killed.
Terrorism has been receding as a major priority for Americans. In last month’s New York Times/CBS poll, conducted April 15-20, only 4 percent named anything relating to foreign policy, terrorism, or national security as the country’s most pressing issue. A January 7-9 Gallup survey found only 40 percent viewed terrorism as an “extremely important issue” for Congress to deal with—the lowest number since the 9/11 attacks.
In addition, despite Obama’s inexperience in foreign affairs, his approval ratings on handling national security were always higher than his handling of the economy and other domestic issues.
He’s taken a pragmatic approach to counterterrorism, continuing most of the policies of the Bush administration, despite campaign rhetoric to the contrary in 2008. His retention of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, decision to keep troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and maintaining the facility housing terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, all reflected a bipartisan consensus on national security.
It’s striking that in 2012, Democrats will want to run on national security—the first time since the Vietnam War where they’ve viewed foreign policy as a political advantage in a presidential campaign.
The risk for Obama isn’t that he’ll be another Carter, but that he’ll resemble George H.W. Bush, who presided over a spectacular military victory over Saddam Hussein, only to lose reelection thanks largely to a recession.
Few Democrats thought the elder Bush was beatable after the Desert Storm campaign dislodged Iraq from Kuwait. But the economy was a drag, making him susceptible to Bill Clinton and the third-party campaign of Ross Perot.
This moment of American unity and celebration will pass, too. The killing of bin Laden will be remembered in the history books, but the election will likely be litigated on the economy. U.S. troops will still be in the Middle East, al-Qaida and its imitators will remain a threat, we will still be subjected to intrusive screenings at airports. The legacy of bin Laden lives on.
But his death changes the presidential race in one important way: No longer can Republicans assume any check-the-box conservative will be enough to defeat Obama. They will have to nominate someone with a record of leadership who can compete with Obama’s gravitas as commander-in-chief. It will take more than a generic Republican to defeat Obama, and the nominee will have to run as much on his or her own accomplishments as on criticizing the president.
This article appears in the May 4, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.