The downing of a NATO Chinook helicopter and the deaths of at least 31 Americans, the single deadliest day for the United States in Afghanistan, provide a tragic coda to what may be a seminal moment in the Obama presidency.
Should Obama lose reelection, this week might one day be considered an inflection point.
First, the White House and Congress failed to reach a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction while barely meeting a self-imposed deadline to lift the nation’s debt limit. The bitter negotiations damaged the standing of Washington leaders—including Obama—in the eyes of an anxious and frustrated public.
Then a rating agency lowered the U.S. credit rating for the first time, an ignominious legacy for Obama.
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And now this harrowing news from Afghanistan—a sobering reminder that a war Obama inherited and expanded will not end anytime soon.
It has been only 96 days since a triumphant Obama informed the nation that a high-risk operation to kill Osama bin Laden had succeeded. As the president’s approval numbers ticked up, the operation—and the widely praised way that Obama conducted it—seemed a sure payoff when he runs for reelection.
The three months since have been rough ones for the administration.
Only 14 days after that speech, the United States, on May 16, reached the legal debt limit of $14.3 trillion, triggering an ugly political battle. That deal averted an historic default, giving the president what he said he wanted for his 50th birthday on Thursday. But there was another “gift” on his birthday—a really bad day in the stock market, one bad enough to wipe out $2 trillion in wealth and erase all the gains of the year.
And when he tried to get away from Washington for a quiet weekend at Camp David to recharge his batteries, the bad news followed him. There was Friday night’s news that Standard & Poor’s, one of the major ratings agencies, had downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time. Standard & Poor’s ignored furious behind-the-scenes lobbying by the administration and left no doubt that it was disgusted by what it called “political brinkmanship” in Washington.
What a week. What a 100 days. The only good news for the president politically is that Election Day is still more than a year away and that voters are even more down on the Republicans in Congress. The GOP insisted on taking the country to the brink, all but daring the ratings agencies to strip the country of its coveted AAA rating.
It would trivialize the deaths of the brave Americans who perished on that Chinook to seek political meaning in their sacrifice. In his statement issued from Camp David, the president kept the focus on them, calling the deaths “a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families.”
But it is neither inappropriate nor untimely to note that the president’s response to this tragedy—and this week of setbacks—will matter both to the country and to his political hopes. President Ronald Reagan faced a similar challenge on a far bloodier day. Against the advice of many military experts, Reagan had inserted a large Marine presence in Lebanon’s civil war. The result, on October 23, 1983, was a lethal terrorist attack that left 241 American troops dead. Reagan responded by altering his timetable and his strategy and had pulled all U.S. Marines out of Lebanon less than four months after the attack.
In the wake of Saturday’s attack, Obama will face similar pressure to alter his timetable and accelerate the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The pressure won’t stop there.
The White House must find a way to recast his political course, from war policy to economic policy, from leadership style to negotiating tactics. How he responds will send important signals to the electorate as they weigh his request for a second term.