Obama Fortunes Shift With Bin Laden's Death

May 2, 2011

The stunning news that President Obama ordered a lightning raid of a Pakistan safehouse that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden could dramatically reshape the political landscape though only time will tell how durable any such change will be.

Only days ago, the pundit class was consumed by the relatively low voter approval of the president's performance, particularly for his management of the economy.

A generalized feeling of the nation being on the "wrong track" fed into lingering doubts about the president's decisiveness and judgment as a leader and made his climb to a second term steeper.

Increased doubts about the president's strategy in Libya and Afghanistan and continued weariness with Iraq just added to a spreading sense of gloom.

The doubts went from serious to strange, with the revival by New York real estate developer Donald Trump of "birther" charges that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. The charges were consuming so much of the national attention span, the president felt it necessary to personally stamp it out.

But Bin Laden's killing at the hands of U.S. forces, while not changing everything, changed much.

As David Gergen, the Harvard University professor and CNN analyst who is former adviser in past White Houses, said in an online post:

Sunday night was the best of the Obama presidency, injecting a much needed boost into his credibility as a leader.

First, bin Laden's killing provided a much needed emotional boost for the nation, demonstrated by the spontaneous gatherings on the streets of New York and Washington soon after the first news reports of bin Laden's death. Suddenly, America seemed to be on the right track on at least one major piece of unresolved business.

The president spoke to that mood at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon to posthumously award two U.S. soldiers of the Korean War with the Congressional Medal of Honor:

OBAMA: "I think we all can agree, this is a good day for America... Today we are reminded that as a nation, there's nothing we can't do when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we work together and when we remember the sense fo unity that defines us as Americans."

Second, Republicans have been trying to frame an argument against Obama as a weak, indecisive leader who, when he finally does make a decision, exercises bad judgment.

But the politically courageous and decisive approach he took in authorizing the bin Laden operation cuts strongly against that narrative.

Obama chose a high-risk, high-reward military action that could have helped increased the chances of his being a one-termer if it had ended badly.

Instead of using stealth bombers to destroy bin Laden's safehouse, the president opted for an far more dangerous mission using Navy Seals and helicopters because he wanted conclusive evidence of bin Laden's death.

It was a gutsy decision that should make charges against the president of indecisive and weak leadership easier for his aides and re-election campaign to rebut.

It was hard for his Republican opponents to begrudge Obama's success. Former President George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney congratulated the president as well as the military and intelligence agencies.

They didn't need to point out what everyone already knew, that the Democratic president who followed them into the White House succeeded in doing what they had not been able to in eight years, kill the the al Qaida leader responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks.

So did Speaker John Boehner and several of those in the hunt, to greater or lesser degrees, for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

The president, along with the U.S. military and intelligence community have been receiving congratulations from Republicans, though not always in that order:

Mitt Romney for instance said in a statement on his Facebook page:

This is a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere. Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president. My thoughts are with the families of Osama bin Laden's many thousands of victims, and the brave servicemen and women who have laid down their lives in pursuit of this murderous terrorist.

Third, getting bin Laden should help to armor the president against charges in the upcoming campaign that he is weak on national security and misunderstands the nature of the greatest threats facing the nation or how to deal with them.

Fourth, the successful bin Laden operation should further marginalize those who have filled the airwaves and blogs recently with unserious charges against the president. Like Trump, for instance.

The president's production of his birth certificate and his ridiculing of Trump over the weekend at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner had already gone quite some way towards doing that.

His ordering up of the bin Laden's death just further makes Obama appear as the serious Oval Office occupant preoccupied with the grave issues of state compared with figures of much less gravitas.

Still, it's important to remember there's a lot of time between now and Election Day 2012.

There's the very real possibility, for instance, that bin Laden-inspired terrorists will try to retaliate for his death. Successful attacks against Americans, especially if they're large scale ones, would certainly change the present dynamic.

Meanwhile, the economy remains a substantial challenge for the president. If the unemployment rate stays high, today's emotional high from the death of bin Laden could by November 2012 be a dim memory.

The president still must deal with the Congress on a number of fiscal issues, including raising the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget.

While his political hand has clearly been strengthened because of his success in killing bin Laden, Obama's national-security achievement may not necessarily transfer to the domestic fight over spending, taxes and entitlements.

But it's indisputable that on Monday the president's political prospects looked a lot brighter than they did on Friday. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.