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Bin Laden Death Drives Campaign Debate as Threats Live On

The White House’s calibration of words, images and details trumpeting the death of Osama bin Laden started the night President Barack Obama announced that U.S. forces had killed the terrorist leader in Pakistan.

The administration supported a film documentary about the Navy SEAL raid against bin Laden, and the president visited the aircraft carrier that ferried bin Laden’s body to burial at sea.

A year after the raid, six months ahead of Election Day, renewed reminders of bin Laden have prompted Republicans to say Obama has taken too much personal credit for the killing of the terrorist whose group attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, leading to a decade-long war in Afghanistan.

This adds to the friction of Obama’s contest with presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who maintains Obama did what any president would have done and that he would have taken the same action. Obama’s unannounced stop in Afghanistan yesterday to sign a plan turning security responsibilities over to Afghan forces capped a days-long focus on bin Laden’s death, including a re-election campaign video suggesting Romney wouldn’t have gone after him.

“A year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice,” Obama said in comments to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, while focusing credit and praise on the military personnel stationed there after a decade of war.

Later, in a nationally televised address to American viewers from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Obama mentioned bin Laden three times.

‘Mission Accomplished’

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of then-President George W. Bush’s appearance on the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce an end to major military operations in Iraq, standing beneath a banner that read: “Mission accomplished.” The official end to the war in Iraq didn’t come until last December.

While Obama deserves credit for the mission that killed bin Laden, he’s placed too much emphasis on “I, I, I,’” said Clark S. Judge, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. He called Obama’s approach “graceless.”

“It’s not unusual or remarkable that a campaign would try to work with Hollywood and with others to play up the things that are admirable about their person,” Judge said. “What I do think is over the top is when the man himself comes off as putting them in the spotlight.”

Responding to Romney

H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas in Austin, disagrees. Romney has been accusing Obama of being weak on Iran and other threats, he said, and Obama is responding with his best hand.

“I don’t really see that Obama or the administration have overplayed this,” Brands said, considering that “Osama bin Laden was the most wanted criminal in the world for 10 years.

“I don’t see any evidence that the public does either,” he said. “The Republicans are going to make mischief on this. But I have a hunch this is going to fade in a couple days.”

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, criticized him last week for the bin Laden-related campaign ad, released April 27.

“Shame on Barack Obama for diminishing the memory of September 11th and the killing of Osama bin Laden by turning it into a cheap political attack ad,” McCain said in a statement.

In an interview yesterday on CNN, McCain credited a bipartisan group of lawmakers for working on the strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, and said it was important for Obama to signal that U.S. commitment. He declined to criticize the president for his trip to Afghanistan.

Eisenhower Biographer

Michael Korda, author of “Ike: An American Hero,” a biography of President Dwight Eisenhower, said in an e-mail that “Obama did just fine, and Ike would have agreed” in his handling of the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.

“Obama did what had to be done,” he said of the bin Laden raid, ”and hasn’t boasted about it, or done a ridiculous song-and-dance like President Bush in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier to announce, ‘Mission accomplished.’”

Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, said there isn’t yet data to assess the impact of the campaign ads on the killing of bin Laden. “It’s difficult to tease out the exact impact that it is having on Obama’s re-election chances now,” Newport said in an e-mail.

While U.S. support for bin Laden’s killing was overwhelming, Newport said, a 7 percentage point boost in Obama’s job approval afterward disappeared within weeks.

Romney’s Remarks

Romney, appearing yesterday at a New York City firehouse that lost personnel in the Sept. 11 attacks, said he would have made “the same decision” Obama made to carry out the mission against bin Laden.

It was “inappropriate” for Obama to suggest otherwise, as he did in an April 30 news conference and as his campaign did more directly with its ad, Romney said.

“At this point now, everybody is politicizing it,” said Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation in Arlington, Virginia. That’s “unhelpful” and a distraction from threats posed by remaining terrorists and offshoots of al-Qaeda, said Jones, who has advised the U.S. military on special operations and is author of “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa’ida Since 9/11.”

“The plotting and the plans for an attack are going to happen regardless of what tone he strikes,” Jones said of Obama.

Mixed Messages

The administration has delivered mixed messages, with the president yesterday in Afghanistan hailing “the light of a new day on the horizon.” The Defense Department issued a report this week about the weaknesses of the Afghan military, and a State Department official warned yesterday of the corrosive effects of corruption in the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Al-Qaeda operations are trying to develop capabilities for cyber-attacks against U.S. networks, the intelligence chief for U.S. Cyber Command, Rear Admiral Samuel Cox, said last week. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic Maghreb remain threats, as well as Somalia’s al-Shabaab.

As a slow U.S. economic recovery has complicated Obama’s re-election prospects, the president and his team over the past year have emphasized selective aspects of bin Laden’s killing to bolster Obama’s image on national security, traditionally an area of political weakness for Democrats.

Situation Room

Today, NBC News will air an exclusive anniversary interview which Obama granted the network from the White House’s Situation Room, where Obama and top aides witnessed the raid on the bin Laden compound play out.

That follows the release of the campaign video that includes former President Bill Clinton praising Obama for ordering the raid against bin Laden and using Romney’s past statements to question whether he would have ordered it.

The administration last year cooperated with “Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal on a film about the raid to be released this year. That triggered an inquiry by congressional Republicans and the Pentagon’s inspector general.

In November, on his way to a conference of Asia-Pacific nations, Obama stopped in San Diego to speak to U.S. troops and watch a basketball game aboard the aircraft carrier that had transported bin Laden’s body for its sea burial.

In March, the campaign released a 17-minute video narrated by actor Tom Hanks and directed by Academy Award-winning documentary maker David Guggenheim in which Vice President Joe Biden dramatized the solitary nature of Obama’s final approval of the bin Laden mission: “Nobody is standing there with him.”

Obama regularly mentions the bin Laden killing in campaign appearances, while crediting the military.

“Thanks to the incredible men and women in uniform, al-Qaeda is weaker than it has ever been, and Osama bin Laden will never again walk the face of this Earth,” he said at a March 1 campaign fundraising reception in New York.

In a news conference on April 30, Obama said the one-year-mark is a time for “some reflection,” and “I hardly think that you’ve seen any excessive celebration taking place.”

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