Of bigness and Barack Obama
In the days since the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama has adopted a simple strategy: be big.
Big as in magnanimous. Big as in bipartisan (or, better yet, nonpartisan). Big as in inclusive.
And, if past history is any guide, being big is a recipe for political success.
Let’s first revisit some of the decisions Obama has made in recent days.
* Obama’s speech announcing the death of bin Laden was somber and short — devoid of triumphalism or credit-taking.
* In making the decision not to release a photo of the deceased bin Laden, a choice which is already drawing some criticism from Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Obama made an appeal to a shared American value system. “That’s not who we are,” Obama told CBS in a taped interview. “We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies. We don’t need to spike the football.”
* Obama invited former President George W. Bush to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at Ground Zero tomorrow (Bush declined) and took a pass on making remarks at the event — even though he will spend several hours at the site.
When viewed cumulatively the overriding intent of these decisions is to cast Obama as the sort of leader Americans tell polsters they want — thoughtful, careful and ultimately guided by the good of the country as opposed to any sort of political agenda.
(Worth noting: Even in the release of his long-form birth certificate — a decidedly small moment, Obama sought to make the case for bigness; “we do not have time for this kind of silliness,” Obama said at the time.)
History suggests that presidents succeed best when they are viewed as big figures who rise above the daily bump and grind of the political world in order to best keep an eye on the long view.
That was former President Ronald Reagan’s great gift and he only ran into significant trouble when he found himself litigating the details of what he knew and when he knew it of the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton’s best moments came when he was able to use his gift for empathy to speak to a common American purpose; his worst, of course, came when he was reduced to defending his actions with a White House intern.
It’s that image of bigness that ties together Obama’s actions since the news of bin Laden’s death.
Not everyone is buying it, of course. “Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction,” wrote former Alaska governor Sarah Palin in a tweet Wednesday. “No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama. It’s part of the mission.”
Still, given the circus-like atmosphere that has seized the Republican presidential race since the emergence of businessman/provocateur Donald Trump, it’s clear that Obama’s measured and decidedly nonpartisan response is designed to draw a bright line between himself and the Republican field.
Moments like this one matter. Why? Beginning with the news of bin Laden’s death and likely extending through Obama’s visit to Ground Zero tomorrow, the American public is paying attention to politics in a way that, frankly, they rarely do. (More than 56 million people tuned in for Obama’s near-midnight announcement of bin Laden’s death on Sunday night.)
With such a large and rapt audience, the actions Obama has taken and will take over the next few days have the potential to directly affect the longer-term impression of him in the electorate.