President Barack Obama’s approval of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden stymies a central tenet of Republican campaigns for the White House: that Democrats can’t pull the trigger.
As he seeks re-election next year, Obama can claim a willingness to take military action -- including authorizing attacks on pirates in the Indian Ocean, the firing of missiles on Libya and, most prominently, the successful mission that landed helicopters inside Pakistan in the compound of the world’s most-wanted fugitive.
“The fact that he got Osama bin Laden is something that’s going to be a very quick and powerful talking point right up to the 2012 election,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Given the success of the operation, President Obama has clear and undisputed credentials” in the national security area.
Ullyot said the specific praise of Obama by several of the Republicans considering a run “shows they acknowledge how powerful this moment is.”
The May 1 attack was the highest-profile military effort since the Iraq war, he said, and highlights the relative lack of foreign policy experience among the potential 2012 Republican candidates.
“There’s very little defense or foreign policy experience among the field as it now stands,” he said.
Middle East Trips
Most of the leading possible candidates, some of whom will gather May 5 in South Carolina for their first debate, have stronger credentials on taxes, budgets and business than in foreign affairs. Among the Republicans, former governors Sarah Palin of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas have traveled to the Middle East in recent months to boost their foreign policy resumes.
Obama, who entered the White House with just four years of U.S. Senate experience following eight years in the Illinois Senate, faced a similar challenge in his 2008 campaign.
In making their case against Obama, the major Republicans who may seek the presidency have been spotlighting rising gasoline prices, the shaky U.S. economy and a national debt that’s approaching $14.3 trillion. That was the focus at a multicandidate forum April 29 in Manchester, New Hampshire, and they are themes the Republicans will hammer at throughout the campaign.
While some of the potential candidates lauded the president for the bin Laden mission, others extolled the U.S. military while skirting mention of Obama.
Romney, the front-runner for the Republican nomination in some polls, included praise for Obama in a statement he issued six minutes after the president finished his nationally televised comments on bin Laden’s death.
“This is a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere,” Romney said. “Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president.”
Asked today, while in Nashua, New Hampshire, about the raid’s political impact, Romney said, “I don’t know whether it helps or hurts politically the president, but I really don’t care. The right thing is we got the bad guy and the nation celebrates that.”
Tim Pawlenty, a former governor from Minnesota exploring a presidential bid, issued a statement that included praise for Obama, as did former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, another possible candidate.
‘Seven Long Years’
“I commend both President George W. Bush who led the campaign against our enemies through seven long years and President Obama who continued and intensified the campaign in both Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Gingrich said in his statement.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who is considering a run, said in a televised interview today on “Fox and Friends” that he had “immense pride and gratitude” for those who caught bin Laden, starting with Obama and Bush. Daniels, who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget during Bush’s administration, said he has spoken to the former president about a potential campaign.
Donald Trump, the real estate businessman who in a May 1 interview suggested he likely will enter the presidential race, said in a statement he wanted to “personally congratulate President Obama and the men and women of the Armed Forces for a job well done.”
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate who may seek the White House next year, didn’t mention Obama in a statement on bin Laden’s killing posted to her Facebook webpage. That was also the case for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a favorite of the Tea Party movement who is also considering a bid.
Huckabee focused on the al-Qaeda leader, writing “welcome to hell, bin Laden,” in a statement on his website.
Former Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who set up a presidential exploratory committee last month, yesterday applauded the mission while attacking Obama’s overall national security record. “The president’s foreign policy with respect to our security is to make our allies less confident in us and has resulted in them distancing themselves from us,” he said yesterday in Pella, Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek said the bin Laden operation will likely enhance Obama’s hand in pursuing both his foreign policy and domestic goals.
“This is a big victory for Obama,” Dallek said. “It strengthens him not only in foreign relations, but with the American public and I think with the Congress, too.”
The success in eliminating bin Laden also casts Obama’s cool, reserved style that some critics have interpreted as a lack of passion in a more favorable light, Dallek said. Compared to the swagger of his predecessor -- “Bring it on,” Bush once challenged Iraqi insurgents -- Obama can claim effectiveness.
“Bush was a big talker who didn’t capture bin Laden. Obama in his quiet way gets results,” Dallek said. “He won in 2008 because he was the anti-Bush. This brings the contrast back into play very nicely.”
Lawmakers who during the 2008 campaign criticized Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience and expressed concerns about how he would deal with national security were among those congratulating him for the bin Laden raid.
“This is a success that happened on President Obama’s watch as commander in chief and he deserves credit for it,” Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats, told reporters on Capitol Hill yesterday. Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, supported Republican presidential nominee John McCain, an Arizona senator, in the 2008 race.
The political benefits of military success can be transitory, said Christopher Gelpi, a political science professor at Duke University who has studied public opinion and war.
The bounce in public approval Bush received after U.S. forces captured Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in December 2003 faded within months, Gelpi said. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, won a victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War in early 1991 only to lose re-election in late 1992 to Democrat Bill Clinton.
“It’s a one-time event but as that event fades in salience people turn their attention back to the economy,” Gelpi said. “We can’t kill bin Laden every day. But people experience the economy every day.”
The outcome of the NATO-led mission in Libya that Obama joined also remains to be seen, as the battle continues between rebels and forces loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Earlier in his presidency, Obama authorized military action against Indian Ocean pirates. In February, Somali pirates killed four American hostages aboard their yacht before it was taken over by the U.S. military and the pirates were killed or captured. In another incident, in April 2009, U.S. commandos freed an American cargo-ship captain being held hostage and killed three pirates.
The long-awaited retribution against bin Laden, the leader of the Sept. 11 attacks, comes as polls show Obama’s approval rating near the lows of his presidency.
A CBS News/New York Times poll taken April 15-20 showed 46 percent of Americans approving and 45 percent disapproving of the job Obama is doing as president. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The successful operation “takes off the table” questioning of Obama’s handling of the war on terrorism, “certainly in the short term and probably in the long term,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.
Still, Goeas said Obama is likely to receive only a short- term benefit in public opinion.
“What’s driving his negatives has little to do with foreign affairs and everything to do with the economy,” he said.
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