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In wake of bin Laden death, Obama basks in glow

The killing of Osama bin Laden hands US President Barack Obama a soaring foreign policy victory and Republicans a reminder that he will not be easy to unseat. But will the boost last?


As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama declared: “We will kill bin Laden.” If the statement sounded like campaign posturing at the time, Sunday night’s news that US forces had indeed taken out the al Qaeda leader made for a rather spectacular instance of a politician keeping his promise.

The high-risk, top-secret operation that resulted in the death of the man behind the 9/11 attacks has delivered what Darrell West, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution, calls “a major league gain for President Obama”: a soaring foreign policy victory that Americans of all political leanings can rally behind, and a pointed reminder to Republican adversaries that he will not be easy to beat come the November 2012 presidential election.

Flexing the commander-in-chief muscle

The president has frequently been criticised by the right for weakness and indecision on foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. He has been accused of dragging his feet on an Afghanistan strategy, failing to wring results from Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and following rather than leading on Libya.

But the raid that killed bin Laden handed Obama a national security accomplishment that had eluded former President George W. Bush for almost eight years. Accounts of the meetings leading up to the mission revealed savvy, high-stakes decision-making on Obama’s part. Rather than wait for proof that bin Laden was in the compound or carry out a bombing that could cause collateral damage and obscure results, the president opted to proceed with a ground raid by commandos with two assault helicopters as back-up.

Now, as political scientist Darrell West said, “No one will be able to argue in coming months that Obama is soft on defence.” Indeed, the killing of Osama bin Laden allows Obama to go into campaign season flexing greater foreign policy muscle than any of his potential Republican opponents while wielding a certain degree of immunity to criticism of his judgement in security matters. It also allows a party often slammed for lacking grit in the global fight against terror to reburnish its image. Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the news “pumps up Democrats”, putting them in a position to say “’We did what your team couldn’t in 7 years’”.

Praise from all corners

Tributes to Obama’s leadership flooded in after the news broke. The New York Times editorial board lauded Obama as “a strong and measured leader”, while one of the paper’s editorialists, Roger Cohen, elaborated: “This is a triumphant day for a young American president who…focus[ed], laser-like, on the terrorists determined to do the United States and its allies harm.”

Praise notably came from both sides of the political aisle, with former President George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, as well as potential 2012 Republican rivals Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump, congratulating Obama. Meanwhile, former New York City mayor and failed Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani told journalists: “I admire the courage of the president to make a decision like this because if something had gone wrong everyone would be blaming him.”

The flurry of positive feedback comes at a useful time for Obama, whose poll numbers have continued to flag as his party prepares to face off against Congressional Republicans over the deficit. Some pundits predict that in the wake of a major, popular achievement by a Democratic administration, Republicans will feel pressure to find compromise with Obama and his party. “[Bin Laden’s death] gives the president a short-term boost in public support that will help him in upcoming legislative battles,” West said. “It will be harder for Republicans to complain about lack of leadership and failure to deliver on key objectives.”

How long will the boost last?

Unlike the healthcare overhaul, financial reform, or the abolition of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, for example, the killing of a loathed terrorist is something that Americans across the political spectrum applaud. The White House has capitalised on that, framing the death of bin Laden as a moment of bi-partisan unity that Republicans might, for the moment, be reluctant to disrupt with criticism of Obama or squabbling with Democratic colleagues; when announcing that the US had killed the al Qaeda leader, the president urged Americans to rekindle “the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11” and said the operation was “a testament to the greatness of our country”.

But many analysts also note that the benefit Obama reaps from overseeing the killing of bin Laden may be temporary – and long forgotten by the time Americans head to the voting booths in a year and a half. Dr. Larry Sabato pointed to the case of former President George H. W. Bush, who “proved you can win a war [the Persian Gulf War] in spectacular fashion and still lose re-election if the economy is sagging”.

Indeed, given the stubbornly high unemployment numbers and a slow economic recovery, a close election is considered probable. Or, as John Fortier, a political scientist at the non-profit Bipartisan Policy Center, put it: “If conditions are like they are today, then any boost from bin Laden will be short-lived."

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