Bin Laden’s Death May Help Obama’s Hand in Policy Debates

Death of Bin Laden May Strengthen Obama in Policy Debate
The killing of Osama bin Laden provides a victory for a public soured by a slow economic recovery, high gasoline prices and dissatisfaction with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Photographer: Rich Clement/Bloomberg

The long-awaited retribution against al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for the Sept. 11 attacks likely will strengthen President Barack Obama’s hand in pursuing both his foreign policy and domestic goals.

Six days after the terrorist attacks in 2001, President George W. Bush declared bin Laden was “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” Nearly 10 years later, after the bearded terrorist eluded capture when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and continued to taunt the nation with videotaped statements, Obama last night announced: “Justice has been done.”

“This is a big victory for Obama,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. “It strengthens him not only in foreign relations, but with the American public and I think with the Congress too.”

Rivals and allies alike offered congratulations to the administration for the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden yesterday in Pakistan.

Bush, Obama’s Republican predecessor, called the mission “a momentous success” and “a victory for America.”

Cheney Accolade

Former Vice President Dick Cheney praised “President Obama and the members of his national security team.”

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, one of the Republicans who may run against him next year, also included Obama among those deserving credit, offering ‘congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president.’’

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, another Republican weighing a presidential bid, congratulated Obama and the military for ’’a job well done.’’

The timing of bin Laden’s death bolsters Obama’s standing as he begins negotiations with congressional Republicans on a long-term deficit reduction package and on legislation to raise the national debt ceiling. He is scheduled to have a dinner with bipartisan congressional leaders at the White House tonight, and Vice President Joe Biden opens budget negotiations on May 5.

For Obama -- who last week released his birth certificate to quiet critics who questioned his eligibility to be president and who, as a White House candidate in 2008, fended off false rumors that he was a Muslim -- his role in ordering the operation and announcing its successful completion provides a counterweight to criticism of his foreign policy, particularly his use of U.S. power.

Bush Contrast

The success in eliminating bin Laden also casts the 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.”

Perceptions of presidential competence established in the international arena tend to bleed over to the public’s overall assessment of job performance, Dallek said.

Rick Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the killing of bin Laden won’t immediately change the tactical battle against terrorism because, at the time of his death, the al-Qaeda leader wasn’t delivering operational orders to the group’s affiliates.

‘Seize’ the Moment

“Its ultimate significance will be on a strategic-symbolic level,” Nelson said. “It’s incumbent on the Obama administration to seize on this moment, especially amid the popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.”

The killing of the man who had come to embody the global terrorist threat gives a victory to celebrate for a public soured by a slow economic recovery, high gasoline prices and dissatisfaction with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a CBS/New York Times poll completed April 20, 70 percent of Americans said the country is on the wrong track, the worst reading in more than two years. Perceptions about the country’s direction historically have been among the factors predicting an incumbent president’s re-election prospects.

Cheering Crowds

As news of bin Laden’s death spread, crowds gathered last night outside the White House and at the “Ground Zero” site of the attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan to cheer, shout “USA” and wave American flags. Shortly before Obama addressed the nation, the crowd outside the White House began singing “The Star Spangled Banner,” the national anthem.

Matthew Murray, 24, of Arlington, Virginia, stood in front of the White House waving an American flag. Dressed in shorts, sneakers and a t-shirt, Murray said he ran five miles from his home to join the crowd.

“It’s a struggle we’ve spent years working on, and it’s finally over,” Murray said. “I’ve never seen a spontaneous outpouring of joy like this.”

Still 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 1991 only to lose re-election a year later to Democrat Bill Clinton.

‘One-Time Event’

“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.”

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said the success in finding bin Laden will make it more difficult for Obama to gain public support for maintaining U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Independent swing voters as well as his Democratic base have soured on the two wars, and the death of bin Laden removes a rationale for the military commitments, she said.

“It definitely puts pressure to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq and bring the troops and the money home,” Lake said. “If he stays in, he’s challenged.”

Obama used his television address to shift the ground to themes of national unity and optimism that were pillars of his 2008 election campaign. He asked the country to “think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11.”

He also said that, while the task of securing the nation against terrorism isn’t finished, “we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”

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