Killing Bin Laden: A Pivotal Political Moment for Obama

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When American troops dragged Saddam Hussein from his spider hole in Dec. 2003, the political implications seemed huge: Pundits quickly asked whether George W. Bush had just clinched reelection, whether the anti-war candidate Howard Dean was now “toast”, and whether public support for the Iraq war might surge. But in the end, Saddam’s capture had little bearing on the outcomes. Bush was reelected, but not easily. Dean flamed out for different reasons. And the Iraq war continued its steady march toward disaster.

That suggests it would be foolish to read too much into President Obama’s stunning announcement that American forces have finally killed Osama bin Laden. It’s easy enough to list the reasons this thrilling moment could pass without great political consequence: Obama has already demonstrated his hawkish credentials with a troop surge in Afghanistan and relentless drone strikes in Pakistan. Come Nov. 2012, voters seem more likely to vote based on the economy than on a euphoric moment 18 months prior. (George H.W. Bush, after all, kicked Saddam Hussein’s butt not long before Bill Clinton capitalized on a recession to pry Bush from office.) And like Hussein in Iraq, bin Laden had very little influence over day-to-day events in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s will to fight. No doubt there will be a flurry of excitement, but in this reading, the political status quo will return.

But things could be different this time. Hussein loomed large in the American psyche, but he was nothing compared to bin Laden, a psychic bogeyman the likes of which haven’t been seen since Adolf Hitler. The scale of his evil and his remarkable elusiveness made bin Laden a truly titanic figure. Bin Laden’s death was also an incredibly cathartic moment for a country nursing the wounds of two long, unpopular wars, a fresh muddle in Libya and a blown-out economy. There’s been precious little reason to chant “USA” of late.

That’s why Obama, though he obviously benefited from luck and the fruits of a labor that began when he was still a Chicago politician, may be transformed in the eyes of Americans: He has slain a monster, fulfilling a kind of mythical hero narrative that could have tremendous power over voters.

In a more narrow sense, Obama’s record on security issues was overdue for a political boost. Despite Obama’s policy of aggressive drone strikes against suspected terrorists, Republicans have wounded him with attacks on his foiled plan to try terror suspects on U.S. soil and his decision to read Miranda rights to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the attempted underwear bomber arrested in Dec. 2009. More recently, critics have ripped Obama for the “quagmire” in Libya and a supposedly feckless “lead from behind” approach to foreign policy–factors that help explain why Obama now polls under 50 percent on his handling of international affairs. An achievement like killing bin Laden will come in handy during the low moments of Obama’s reelection campaign. In speeches, rallies and at debates it could be the daisy cutter of applause lines.

Those are all reasons why the 2012 Republican candidates must know that their task just got much harder. Their challenge now is to demonstrate patriotism and graciousness–by congratulating the President and celebrating bin Laden’s death–while steering the conversation quickly back to the ongoing threat from al-Qaeda, and the weaknesses they see in Obama’s policies. That’s no simple pirouette.

Finally, it’s entirely possible that bin Laden’s death will hasten the U.S.’s exit from Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s death matters more to Afghanistan than Saddam’s capture did to Iraq. The latter war was a fluid and anarchic struggle, with horrible military setbacks quickly overtaking the triumph of the dictator’s capture. The war in Afghanistan is a slow and steady slog that depends on some buy-in from the American public to Obama’s case for a continued presence there. Bin Laden’s death undermines the President’s position. The war has already grown deeply unpopular, and to the extent many Americans have a clear grasp of why we’re still there, it’s based on an often-repeated story about al-Qaeda and the origins of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With bin Laden gone, it will be harder to convince Americans that a massive troop presence in Central Asia remains necessary.

There’s plenty of reason to think then that this is a pivotal moment for Obama’s presidency. There are no perfect predictions in politics–in part because we can’t know when the next stunning development will materialize. A terrorist attack against America, particularly one that’s the product of some preventable lapse, could flip the above equation in an instant. If his surviving disciples were to carry out such an attack, Osama bin Laden would have his revenge on Barack Obama.