Can Barack Obama ride the OBL raid to victory in November?
- By Michael A. CohenMichael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
If there is one attribute that the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign has brought us in great measure, aside from sweater vests and former pizza magnates with delusions of grandeur, it is false outrage. Whether it’s Democrats up in arms over Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus comparing the "war on women" to a "war on caterpillars" or multimillionaire Ann Romney becoming a troubadour for stay-at-home moms against the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse from Hilary Rosen, the Romney and Obama camps have practically been getting the vapors at the first sight of political blood this campaign cycle.
This week’s latest indignation: President Barack Obama taking political credit for killing Osama bin Laden and then accusing his opponent, Mitt Romney, of insufficient rigor in wanting to kill America’s most wanted terrorist. To be sure, there’s nothing really new about Obama raising this issue. His State of the Union address could have been renamed, "I’m Barack Obama and I Killed Osama bin Laden." The 17-minute documentary film put out this year by the Obama campaign offered as its centerpiece a recounting of the now-legendary raid. Now, the latest barrage comes in a recent 90-second ad (narrated by Bill Clinton), aimed to coincide with the May 2 anniversary of bin Laden’s death, that not only praises the president’s decision-making but wonders whether Romney would have taken the same difficult path.
Running on the legacy of a corpse that lies at the bottom of the Arabian Sea has pretty clearly been the Obama campaign’s mode for quite some time — and why not? Obama took his share of hits in the 2008 campaign (including from his now vice president and secretary of state) for saying that he would prioritize killing OBL. But as president he stuck to his guns. Romney, during the same presidential cycle, said it wasn’t worth "moving heaven and earth" to go after the terrorist leader. One can argue over the details and whether one believes that a President Romney would have really been so reticent about trying to kill bin Laden. But hey, political campaigns ain’t beanbag — and any president with a major military accomplishment under his belt is going to take credit. If George W. Bush had killed bin Laden, he would have pulled the same move, and it would have been the Democrats howling in false outrage. In fact, they did just that when Bush appeared to be wrapping himself in the flag of 9/11 during the 2004 election. When you have a political advantage you’re going to use it, and in this respect Obama is no different from any other man who has sat in the Oval Office.
What is distinctive, however, about Obama’s attempt to turn the bin Laden raid into political gold is how uniquely effective a strategy it could end up being. At a time of economic stagnation and high unemployment, foreign-policy accomplishments aren’t supposed to matter all that much in the general election. In fact, every major public opinion poll suggests that voters simply aren’t that concerned about foreign policy, in general, and terrorism, in particular. At the same time, though, they give Obama high marks for his foreign-policy performance — and his efforts in fighting terrorism are a big part of the reason.
In this regard, the killing of bin Laden is more than simply a key message point for Obama’s campaign; it is actually the core of his reelection prospects. Here is a Democrat who not only talked the talk on the use of military force but walked the walk (a point reinforced by Peter Bergen’s valentine to Obama’s military aggressiveness and "warrior" ethos in April 29’s New York Times that surely made many an Obama campaign staffer swoon).
Indeed, the OBL raid — and its political narrative in this election — has a lot more to do with toughness and leadership than it does foreign policy or even terrorism. The successful raid, first and foremost, strengthens Obama’s leadership credentials. In fact, Obama’s strategy is almost identical to the political benefit that Bush sought to accrue in his 2004 reelection effort when his campaign went to great lengths to portray him as the protector-in-chief — and his opponent as simply not tough or experienced enough to keep America safe. Like for Bush, the political benefit for Obama is less about the act itself and more about the image it creates around the man — a notion that Democrats have been happy to reinforce with repeated assertions about what a difficult and gutsy call it was for Obama to order the raid. In fact, it was a point that Romney unintentionally raised when he casually noted this week that "even Jimmy Carter" would have ordered the OBL mission. But as James Fallows, a former Carter staffer, reminds us, his old boss did order a tricky military operation. It failed miserably and almost certainly hurt his reelection chances, a fact that could not have been lost on the current commander in chief. The reference to Carter is a reminder that such decisions are not without their potential political costs.
Beyond these political benefits, the bin Laden raid is even more important for the defensive shield it places around the president. It is the ultimate inoculation against any and all Republican critiques of Obama’s toughness. Case in point: Back in December, when Republicans were ramping up their criticism of Obama’s anti-terrorism policies, he threw down the OBL trump card: "Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement." It was a tawdry spectacle for a president to engage in, but one can only imagine the frustration of Republicans so used to attacking liberals for various sins of softness to find themselves being politically outflanked and even politically baited by a trigger-happy Democrat.
The result is that though Obama might be getting criticized by Republicans for politicizing the bin Laden anniversary, it’s a charge that the Obama camp is more than happy to receive. Every day that the country’s press corps is talking about bin Laden is a day that the White House is winning, content or spin be damned.
All this is a very far cry from the last presidential incumbent with a big military victory on his campaign mantelpiece. In the spring and summer of 1991, awash in the glow of the Gulf War, George H.W. Bush saw his approval ratings hit stratospheric heights (nearly 90 percent). Potential Democratic nominees, fearful of Bush’s seemingly bulletproof public support and concerned about their votes in the Senate against the war, were too fearful to take Bush on. The Democratic field then was a motley collection of political also-rans and little-known politicians. Yet, a year later, Bush was in the political doldrums, buffeted by a challenge from his right-wing flank and under political assault from both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. In the end, the Gulf War rarely came up during the 1992 general election, and when it did the issue was less about Bush’s success in pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but rather about not finishing the job or devoting so much attention to foreign affairs while the economy was performing so poorly.
The elder Bush’s legacy as a foreign-policy president is one of the most underrated of the 20th century. In fact, Obama at one point during the 2008 campaign said that his own presidency would represent "a return to the traditional, bipartisan, realistic foreign policy" of George H.W. Bush (and Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy).
Of course, Bush’s performance did little to help him on the campaign trail, and he was soundly defeated on Election Day — a part of Bush’s legacy that Obama would desperately like not to repeat. In the end, winning the Gulf War did little to make Bush appear as a stronger, tougher leader when it came to tackling the domestic economy. But with the bold, aggressive manner in which Obama has already spun the bin Laden anniversary this week — and will almost certainly do for the next six months — it appears increasingly unlikely that he will fall into the same political trap as his ill-fated predecessor.