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What Killing Bin Laden Means for Obama

What Killing Bin Laden Means for Obama

By Alexis Simendinger - May 2, 2011

Twenty-four hours before President Obama announced to a surprised world that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces during a dramatic raid on a hideout near Islamabad, the president was calmly delivering a comedy sketch in Washington.

While he gently upbraided the assembled media for too-often missing the big picture, he lampooned recent knocks on his presidential leadership, most prominently those coming from Donald Trump. Obama's critics had been painting him for months as passive, risk-averse, and dangerously muddled in his foreign policy. The president chose to sharply ridicule Trump's claims to seismic decisiveness in comparison with "what keeps me up at night."

One day later, in a somber address from the White House, the president proved his point about what has been disturbing his sleep. Separate from releasing his birth certificate, consoling tornado-ravaged Alabamans, and preparing to battle Republicans in Congress over federal spending, the commander-in-chief secretly approved a bold strike to drop U.S. forces behind the walls of a compound in Pakistan to find and kill bin Laden.

The architect of 9/11 was finally located living with family members inside a property near Pakistan's bustling capital, according to administration officials. After years of painstaking sleuthing, the intelligence community traced bin Laden through links to a trusted associate, who also was killed on Sunday.

Obama hailed the success of the mission as a victory in the ongoing war on terror. And he claimed credit for keeping a promise he made, but rarely spoke about after his election, to avenge the 2001 attacks on the United States. A vow to take bin Laden "dead or alive" initially was made by President Bush, who propelled the country into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and hung a $25 million bounty around bin Laden's head.

The news of bin Laden's death sparked spontaneous street celebrations in Washington and New York City. Revelers celebrated the flag, American might, and what the president called "justice," even if they were reluctant to hand Barack Obama all the acclaim. Some commentators predicted that Obama's political fortunes in 2012 would be secure, forgetting, perhaps, that presidential triumphs over despots and demons have sometimes proved politically fleeting.

It was a sour U.S. economy that was more decisive with voters in 1992 than President George H.W. Bush's celebrated removal of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. And when U.S. forces pulled a bedraggled Saddam Hussein out of an underground hideaway in Iraq in 2003 to put him on trial, George W. Bush similarly found the benefits at home short-lived. The president's job approval rallied by seven points to 63 percent when Hussein was captured, according to the Gallup Poll, but Bush's standing ebbed thereafter.

But in the near-term, the benefits for Obama seem obvious. As commander-in-chief, the details of the operation cast the president as creative, decisive and willing to take risks in America's interest. The president also tried to share the limelight across the aisle.

Bin Laden's demise and burial at sea altered the Republicans' plans to return to Congress Monday to blast the president over federal spending and the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Partisan infighting was deferred for at least a day.

There were statements of congratulations from around the world, as well as from the White House team Obama succeeded, including President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and most of the Republicans who would like to defeat him next year. New York's Rep. Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, enthused that the president had acted courageously to approve a strike inside Pakistan that just as easily could have ended badly.

"I want to give him full credit for what he did," King said during a CNN interview. "He was the guy who was on the line and had to make the right decision. . . . This is one of the most significant achievements in American history."

It is too early to know whether the strike against bin Laden could yet prove troublesome for the president. Experts discussed whether a splintered al-Qaeda without its iconic leader could be even more dangerous to the United States in retaliation, or whether relations with Pakistan would weaken because the United States struck without advance consultations.

Obama seemed pleased to tout another check mark next to a campaign promise. Health care reform had been one of those favorite achievements -- a goal President Clinton could not pull off. Ridding the world of bin Laden, to this president, is yet another -- an achievement that eluded Bush.

As a candidate in 2008 Obama vowed to kill bin Laden and "crush" al-Qaeda. He also said at the time that he would go after bin Laden without Pakistan's approval if that's where the terrorist holed up. "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out," then-Sen. Obama said at a presidential debate in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 7, 2008.

Obama won the election in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war and his determination to end it. At the same time, he argued that a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan could thwart al-Qaeda and the Taliban -- a debate that still rages. As president, Obama has been challenged by his frustrated Democratic base to show how his approach to Iraq and Afghanistan differs dramatically from that of his predecessor. How and when the United States exits both countries, and where America should intervene elsewhere around the world remain unsettled questions. Bin Laden's death does nothing to alter that, but for an embattled president and his national security team, it was decidedly good news to celebrate.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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