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The political consequences of Osama bin Laden’s death

at 12:12 AM ET, 05/02/2011

The news that Osama bin Laden has been killed in a CIA operation will have a massive — although yet-to-be-fully determined — impact on the political landscape of the country.

The simple fact is that there is and will continue to be a huge desire for the details of how, when and where he was killed as well as analysis of what it means for American foreign policy. Media coverage for days — if not weeks — will be dominated by the news.

That landslide of coverage/attention will force anyone operating in the political space to respond to it. So, while this news is not political, it will cause major reverberations in the political world.

What we know in terms of the impact of bin Laden’s death is far less than what we don’t know. And, it’s easy in the moment to draw overbroad conclusions about the political meaning of these sorts of major events. (Remember that many people — and political strategists — insisted that then President George H.W. Bush was unbeatable in the 1992 election following the successful Gulf War.)

But below are a few likely near-term outcomes.

* A partisan putting-aside: Bin Laden’s death will almost certainly serve as a symbolic bookend to the decade-long struggle against terrorism that began with the attacks against New York City, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the wake of that terrorist attack, there was an extended period of bipartisanship — or, perhaps more accurately, non-partisanship — in the political world.

The early reaction to bin Laden’s death suggests a similar putting aside of partisanship as a rallying effect takes hold in the country. And, Obama encouraged that sentiment in his remarks tonight; “Let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11,” said the president.

Whether — and how long — that spirit lasts is unknowable.

* Obama as leader: While the work of tracking down and catching bin Laden was a decades-long process that involved three presidents — not to mention thousands of people — it was President Obama who made the order today that put the operation in place that killed bin Laden. It was President Obama who announced bin Laden’s death. It was President Obama who, in his remarks tonight, used the killing of bin Laden as evidence that America can accomplish anything to which it sets its mind.

All of the above — not to mention the surge of patriotism in the wake of bin Laden’s death — will strengthen the image of Obama as a leader. It will also complicate attempts by Republican presidential candidates — at least in the near term — to attack Obama on any topic.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s statement on the news is indicative of what’s to come; “I want to congratulate America’s armed forces and President Obama for a job well done,” Pawlenty said.

* It’s (still) the economy: Yes, this is giant news. Yes, this will be a defining moment of the Obama presidency. No, it will not likely fundamentally alter the over-arching issue of the 2012 election, which is, and is nearly-certain to remain, the economy.

In the coming weeks, the economy will take a backseat to the unspooling of the details of bin Laden’s death. But, the story will — at some point — lose steam and begin to move from the top of peoples’ minds. (To be clear: it’s not likely to disappear entirely given the magnitude of what the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 meant to the country.)

When that happens, gas prices, the unemployment rate and the general direction of the economy will reassert themselves as major issues heading into next November.

 
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