SALALAH, Oman — To this port worker who moonlights driving tourists around this city, it is simple.
If U.S. Navy SEALs had really killed Osama bin Laden, why doesn’t the U.S. government release a picture or display the body, he asked. Sitting in a coffee shop near the Arabian Sea, the withering midday heat outside has driven most local people from the streets.
To him, how could it be anything else but a hoax? When the suggestion is made to him that U.S. authorities worried that displaying a photo of bin Laden with a gunshot wound to the head would incite more anti-Americanism and risk being perceived as disrespectful to Islamic people, he listens intently.
I mention President Obama’s line about how bin Laden was a terrorist, not a trophy. He then asks why would the United States “dump his body into the ocean?” When it is suggested to him that as much of the Islamic burial ritual as possible was followed, having a sailor of the Muslim faith cleanse the body, wrapping in a sheet, burying within 24 hours of death, he nodded.
I explain that while the United States understood that burial at sea was not an acceptable method of burial, there was a fear that a bin Laden gravesite could become a shrine or a memorial, and that the United States wanted to go to great lengths to keep him from being a martyr.
The 40-something-year-old father of two thought about it; it seemed logical, he obviously had never heard those arguments. It was unclear whether he was convinced, but the arguments did seem to resonate.
Clearly, whatever the United States says in this part of the world is not taken at face value, but at least the arguments were not—in this man’s case—summarily dismissed. Interestingly, he was dumbfounded to hear that a fairly substantial number of Americans did not believe that Obama was born in the United States, going to show that just because someone believes some conspiracy theories doesn’t mean you believe them all.
He seemed receptive to the argument that many people will inevitably seek to question anything they do not want to believe is true. Working four 12-hour graveyard shifts at the gigantic container-ship port and moonlighting as a taxi driver shuttling mostly European tourists around to shop the souks and visit the mosques had done nothing to dull his mind.
He asked a lot of questions about living in the United States. Did I live in a house or an apartment and did I own it? How many rooms does it have? How long had I lived there and even how much it cost, apologizing for my obvious discomfort on the last one. Gazing out of the window of the car, he commented that “our lives are so very different.”
Different yes, but similar in that, once the bin Laden stuff dies down, economic stresses are still prevalent. In Oman, this guide is working longer and harder hours to keep up. Many Americans, as well, feel like they are working longer and harder, and still feeling the economic heat.
So while the capture and killing of bin Laden has goosed Obama’s numbers up a bit in the United States, don’t expect that to last long. The economy is still the defining issue of the times. And the challenges of jobs and gasoline prices are much more durable.
The unemployment report released on Friday underscores the step-forward and step-back nature of this frustrating economy.
A net of 244,000 new jobs were created in April (good news), but the unemployment rate rose from 8.8 to 9.0 percent (bad news). Washington Post economics blogger and columnist Ezra Klein estimated that even with a strong 244,000 net new jobs a month pace, it would be 2016 before employment would return to where it was before the recession. That’s how deep the hole has been dug, though not all under this president. The average price of a regular gallon is up from last month and last year. And while that is a somewhat predictable, supply-and-demand fluctuation, it’s a visible price that people latch onto and blame the powers-that-be for.
High gasoline prices depress the popularity and weigh on the reelection prospects of any president, Democrat or Republican. Global demand created by rapid economic growth in China, India, and other emerging economies, as well as market fears of supply disruptions are big culprits in oil prices. And these are beyond the influence of Washington and far more important than domestic drilling or anything oil companies are or are not doing.
To the independent voters who are most critical in determining the outcome of elections, jobs and gasoline prices are much more likely to define Obama’s reelection prospects and attitudes toward reelecting members of Congress than anything else.
The question might be whether the public can weigh the issues in all their complexity, or whether it just seeks to punish someone.
This article appears in the May 10, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.