Why Obama Can’t Be Swift-Boated

The first weeks of the general election campaign have seen Republicans go after two of President Barack Obama’s strongest points: his personality and his national security credentials.

On the first, Karl Rove’s group, American Crossroads, has posted a video online called “Cool,” which puts together clips of Obama wearing 3-D glasses, dancing on “Ellen,” singing Al Green, drinking a beer, catching a fly buzzing around during an on-camera interview, and slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. Up to that point, you’re thinking what a good sport the president is -- and a good dancer to boot. Then a question appears on-screen: “After 4 years of a celebrity president, is your life any better?”

You know how that ad ends. The second line of attack on Obama is that the Osama bin Laden raid was no big deal, and even mentioning it is akin to spiking the football, like George W. Bush crowing “Mission Accomplished” when the mission was unaccomplished.

There’s a problem at the heart of this strategy: Obama -- against the advice of two trusted advisers, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden -- actually called for the kill. Romney did not, and might not have, given his views.

In 2007 Romney said it was “not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” Romney criticized Obama for pledging in 2008 to go into Pakistan to get bin Laden if necessary, saying he would do no such thing. On Monday Romney said the decision to go after bin Laden was so simple that “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.” Then on Tuesday he tweeted, “I applaud President Obama for approving the mission.”

Romney’s views may be famously malleable, but if there’s one thing consistent about him, it’s his boardroom approach to management. If his Defense secretary and vice president urged a more cautious course, he probably would have taken it.

The two issues fused Saturday night, when Obama took the stage at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner for the annual inside-Washington comedy night and was expected to make light of life and himself. “Last year at this time, in fact on this very weekend, we finally delivered justice to one of the world’s most notorious individuals,” Obama began. It was the anniversary of the killing of bin Laden, but Obama was referring to someone else: As the president broke into a high-wattage smile, the image of a bloated, orange-skinned, pouffed-hair Donald Trump appeared on-screen in the Hilton ballroom.

Later in the evening Obama addressed whether he was too cool for school, noting that Romney’s campaign had “criticized me for slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. In fact, I understand Governor Romney was so incensed he asked his staff if he could get some equal time on ’The Merv Griffin Show.’”

It’s not inconceivable that a worthy opponent could spin a positive into a negative and vice versa: that is, give Romney a personality and denigrate Obama’s. After all, in 2004 Republicans did the near impossible, turning Senator John Kerry’s military service into a minus. The Swift-Boaters found a disgruntled veteran to question whether Kerry deserved his three Purple Hearts and Silver Star for valor in Vietnam. By the time a book called “Unfit for Command” was published in August 2004, Bush’s spotty service in the National Guard protecting Texas against Oklahoma didn’t look so bad.

Don’t be surprised when some Navy SEAL turns up on a website near you to give a stinging rebuke to Obama. Already, a columnist in Britain’s Daily Mail, Toby Harnden, is selectively quoting former and current Navy SEALs who largely praise the president but say, in effect, that any president would have made a similar call. The column quotes a former SEAL, Brandon Webb, as saying that the Obama administration should not be releasing any information that concerns the highly classified SEAL Team Six, which Harnden writes is being “paraded around a global audience like a show dog.”

But it might not work. Obama’s belief system -- in that hopey-changey business and the post-partisanship thing -- has been altered by reality. He doesn’t seem as inclined to turn the other cheek, as he did in the debate about the debt ceiling.

Bring it on, as Bush would say. In an ad for the Obama campaign, Bill Clinton makes the strongest case for the “decider-in-chief,” who would be dog meat if the mission had failed. “Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there, and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they’d been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him.”

Kerry may have been Swift-Boated, but Obama is not going to be SEALed. Republicans are used to calling Democrats cowards and worse. Not this time. Republicans have the squishy, soft, cosseted, consensus-building candidate, while Democrats have the fighter. Finally.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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