Barack Obama’s awkward debate references to Osama bin Laden

Anyone who watched the Democratic convention knows that the Obama campaign is championing the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of the administration’s signature achievements — a strategy best summed up by Vice President Joe Biden’s reminder that "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive." But it hasn’t been easy for ...

Anyone who watched the Democratic convention knows that the Obama campaign is championing the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of the administration's signature achievements -- a strategy best summed up by Vice President Joe Biden's reminder that "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive."

But it hasn't been easy for the president to mention the al Qaeda leader's death during the first two  presidential debates, which have focused largely on domestic policy, and that's made for some odd moments. During Tuesday night's town hall, for example, an audience member complained about the rising cost of living:

Anyone who watched the Democratic convention knows that the Obama campaign is championing the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of the administration’s signature achievements — a strategy best summed up by Vice President Joe Biden’s reminder that "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive."

But it hasn’t been easy for the president to mention the al Qaeda leader’s death during the first two  presidential debates, which have focused largely on domestic policy, and that’s made for some odd moments. During Tuesday night’s town hall, for example, an audience member complained about the rising cost of living:

QUESTION: Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012? I’m not that optimistic as I was in 2012. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.

OBAMA: Well, we’ve gone through a tough four years. There’s no doubt about it. But four years ago, I told the American people and I told you I would cut taxes for middle class families. And I did. I told you I’d cut taxes for small businesses, and I have.

I said that I’d end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we’d refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda’s leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead.

After listing several other successes on the domestic front, Obama conceded that people are still struggling despite his achievements and circled back to the original prompt about accomplishments by stating that "the commitments I’ve made, I’ve kept." But the mentions of Iraq, al Qaeda, and bin Laden still seemed out of place in response to a question about economic struggles.

Obama made an even more bizarre reference to bin Laden in the first debate, when he fielded a question about partisan gridlock. The president appeared to suggest that he’d pursued bin Laden because it would strengthen the middle class:

But look, my philosophy has been I will take ideas from anybody, Democrat or Republican, as long as they’re advancing the cause of making middle-class families stronger and giving ladders of opportunity into the middle class. That’s how we cut taxes for middle-class families and small businesses. That’s how we cut a trillion dollars of spending that wasn’t advancing that cause. That’s how we signed three trade deals into law that are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world. That’s how we repealed "don’t ask, don’t tell." That’s how we ended the war in Iraq, as I promised, and that’s how we’re going to wind down the war in Afghanistan. That’s how we went after al-Qaida and bin Laden.

As my colleague Josh Rogin notes, this language about ending the war in Iraq, weakening al Qaeda, and killing bin Laden is part of Obama’s stump speech. But the past two debates suggest that the president reflexively invokes the wording whenever there’s an opening — however far afield — to discuss his accomplishments. Luckily for Obama, the third and final presidential debate will focus on foreign policy. That should provide more than enough opportunities to work in a bin Laden reference or two. 

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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