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Bin Laden at Center of Obama-Romney Spat

Bin Laden at Center of Obama-Romney Spat

By Scott Conroy - April 27, 2012


The hours after a U.S. Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden last May saw an outpouring of public patriotism rarely exhibited since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

College students who were 9 or 10 years old in 2001 chanted "USA! USA!," New Yorkers gathered at Ground Zero and sang the national anthem, and millions of other Americans celebrated in more subdued ways the death of a despised villain and reflected on the manner in which life had changed over the preceding decade.

As a soon-to-be official candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney mirrored the national mood when he praised the troops and President Obama for his decision to order the risky mission in Pakistan.

But as the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death approaches amid a general election fight, the al-Qaeda leader has become in death the political football that he often was in life.

The Romney and Obama campaigns have spent the last two days in a back-and-forth spat over bin Laden -- a reminder of the extent to which almost every facet of the national discourse will be politicized leading up to November.

In a speech in New York on Thursday, Vice President Biden launched the opening salvo of the squabble, in which both sides charge the other of manufactured outrage and the politicization of national security.

"If you are looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it's pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive," Biden said. "You have to ask yourself: If Governor Romney had been president, could he have used the same slogan in reverse? People are going to make that judgment."

Biden went on to reference the presumptive nominee’s recent characterization of Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” accusing the Republican of harboring a “Cold War mindset” that is not attuned to current security threats.

Romney advisers fired back on Thursday in a conference call with reporters, blaming Obama for projecting weakness on the international stage and having “downgraded” the U.S. relationship with Israel.

The exchange grew even more bitter Friday morning when the Obama campaign released a 90-second Web ad highlighting the approaching anniversary of bin Laden’s death, which featured former President Bill Clinton commending Obama for taking “the harder and more honorable path” by carrying out the raid in Pakistan.

The ad asks, “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?” and then highlights statements the candidate made before bin Laden’s death, which appeared to downplay the importance of killing the terrorist leader.

The Romney campaign was quick to express outrage, noting that the former Massachusetts governor had congratulated the president after the raid.

“It's now sad to see the Obama campaign seek to use an event that unified our country to once again divide us, in order to try to distract voters' attention from the failures of his administration,” said Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul in a statement to reporters.

Republicans brought attention to a remark Obama made soon after bin Laden’s death, in which he explained to “60 Minutes” his decision not to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse: “We don’t need to spike the football.”

And as ABC News and other media outlets have noted, during the 2008 campaign, it was Obama’s team that accused Hillary Clinton of using bin Laden for political benefit. During the Democratic primary fight that year, the Clinton campaign released an ad that did not mention Obama by name but featured an image of bin Laden in an effort to highlight perceptions of Clinton as the candidate most prepared to become commander-in-chief.

“You need to be ready for anything, especially now,” the narrator of the Clinton ad said. Bill Burton -- who was then an Obama campaign spokesperson and is now a chief strategist at the Obama super PAC, Priorities USA -- accused Clinton at the time of invoking bin Laden “to score political points” and engage in “the politics of fear.”

Romney’s foreign policy team has for months pressed the case that Obama has been weak on national security, but that message has not resonated with voters thus far. In a CNN poll released earlier this month, Obama had a substantial 52 percent to 36 percent lead over Romney when respondents were asked which candidate is better able to handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief.

The time and effort that each campaign has devoted to lobbing charges of weakness and hypocrisy demonstrate the extent to which both sides are eager to seize the national security mantle, despite widely held perceptions that voters have relatively little interest in foreign affairs this election cycle. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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