Just five days after he disclosed a daring American raid that led to Osama bin Laden's death and the day after he laid a wreath at Ground Zero to honor those murdered by al-Qaida on 9/11, President Obama traveled to Fort Campbell in Kentucky where he thanked members of Seal Team 6 and other warriors who were involved in the raid on the terrorist leader's compound.
Donning shirtsleeves and tie, the president addressed about 2,500 soldiers in an aircraft hangar and told them, "I came here for a simple reason: to say thank you on behalf of America."
The "terrorist leader who struck our nation on 9/11 will never threaten our nation again," the president said to cheers from the troops.
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Obama also called the raid the "toughest decision" of his presidency. Administration officials have maintained that they couldn't be sure bin Laden was hiding at the walled compound and they risked disastrous fallout had the mission failed including the deaths or capture of Americans, ruptured relations with Pakistan, and a revitalized al-Qaida had the elusive Saudi managed to escape capture and mock America.
For Obama, the trip to Fort Campbell is part of striking a careful balance between touting an historic military achievement that eluded his Republican predecessor and which has been greeted by cheers from a grateful nation while trying not to sound too boastful. Obama himself told CBS News's "60 Minutes," in a segment to be broadcast Sunday night, that he was not releasing the photos of bin Laden's corpse in part because it would have been a "spike the football" moment.
"That's not who we are," the president told CBS News. He also noted that the release might have incited violence in the Muslim world.
So far the White House approach to this tricky, post-bin Laden period seems to be winning favor among Americans. The president's approval ratings have soared in any number of polls taken since the raid on bin Laden's Pakistan compound. The White House, though, is fully aware that high unemployment and continued military conflicts could send those numbers heading back down.
While at the base, the president also met members of the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, which has played a vital role in the nation's wars including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also met with members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment known as the "Night Stalkers" which likely provided the helicopter pilots who flew the special forces under cover of darkness into Obama's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan just a short distance from the Islamic nation's military academy—leading to questions about whether Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden's whereabouts or helped him evade America's manhunt.
Behind closed doors, the president awarded those involved in the raid the Presidential Unit Citation which is given to units showing extraordinary bravery and which is the unit equivalent to awards like the Distinguished Service Cross given to individuals.
While cautioning that the war on al-Qaida was far from over, the president claimed that the terror organization's leadership was under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. "We're going to ultimately defeat al-Qaida," the president said.
The bin Laden raid will remain a topic of conversation in Washington and around the nation this weekend as the president appears on the popular "60 Minutes" programs and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon makes the rounds of the Sunday shows where he's likely to be asked about U.S.-Pakistani relations in the wake of the raid, the changing account of the raid offered by the White House, and the efforts to attack al-Qaida now that bin Laden is no more. Obama's surprise prime-time speech on Sunday, May 1, announcing bin Laden's killing, was the most watched of his presidency.
Vice President Joe Biden also traveled to Fort Campbell with the president and fired up the crowd before the president addressed the troops, at times offering some levity. While noting that he himself might be speaking so long that the president would be mad at him, the famously loquacious vice president offered a comic moment saying that as the father of a son in the military he had been to similar ceremonies and thought the speeches went too long. "Hell, man, I wanna see my kid," Biden recalled thinking. The troops laughed and applauded.