Rarely has a president blended the role of commander in chief with that of campaigner in chief quite as vividly as President Obama has done in the days surrounding the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death.
Five days ago, his reelection campaign triggered a partisan debate over whether he had unduly politicized bin Laden’s killing by releasing an advertisement that not only trumpeted that achievement but also pointedly questioned whether presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney would have had the courage to make the same decision.
As that debate raged, the president, acting as commander in chief, landed in Afghanistan on Tuesday afternoon for an unannounced visit to the war zone. There, he signed a new security agreement with President Hamid Karzai that outlines a partnership between the two countries that will continue after U.S. combat forces end their mission in 2014.
The president’s trip muted, at least for a few hours, the partisan exchanges over whether his campaign had crossed a line with its bin Laden video. At the same time, it suggested that between now and November, the president will point to his management of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the administration’s efforts to significantly degrade al-Qaeda, as major successes of his first term.
Yet the visit was also a reminder that Obama is keenly aware that he is dealing with a war-weary nation when it comes to Afghanistan. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, two-thirds of Americans said they think the decade-long battle there has not been worth the costs it has incurred; nearly half the country feels strongly that way. Even a majority of Republicans hold a negative view of the conflict.
Obama’s message Tuesday night in his nationally televised speech was tailored to directly address that sentiment. It was an effort to say that progress has been made and that the end is coming, however slowly, while trying to assure the Afghans that the United States will not cut and run once the combat mission ends. He said the United States must see this battle through to a successful conclusion, although not one that involves nation-building.
“We have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” he said. “Yet here, in the predawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq war is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan while delivering justice to al-Qaeda.”
Obama has sought to strike that balance on Afghanistan ever since he decided to increase the number of U.S. troops there. The details of the new strategic agreement will be important: how many troops will remain in Afghanistan, for how long and under what terms. None of those was immediately available.
Economic issues, not foreign policy concerns, are expected to dominate the general-election debate between Obama and Romney and will largely determine its outcome. On those issues, the president remains vulnerable, particularly if there are signs of stagnation or slippage in the fragile economic recovery.
Foreign policy has been a brighter spot for the president. In contrast to the economy, an area in which more Americans disapprove of his actions than approve, Obama’s ratings on foreign policy have been generally higher. Even so, Romney has signaled his determination to challenge Obama’s record overseas. He has been a sharp critic of the administration’s handling of Iran as well as the way the president has dealt with Israel.
For Obama, nothing abroad has been as successful or dramatic as the killing of bin Laden a year ago. The raid carried out by Navy SEALs led to a temporary surge in Obama’s approval ratings. It was inevitable that the administration and the president’s reelection campaign would seek to highlight the accomplishment on its first anniversary.
But the way they did it opened up the president to criticism that nothing was beyond using for pure political advantage. Former president George W. Bush drew criticism for an ad early in the 2004 campaign that showed briefly a video clip of remains being carried from the site of the World Trade Center. It was considered too political and disrespectful.
Obama’s ad, which relied heavily on testimony from former president Bill Clinton, was an assertion of the president’s nerve and leadership — and there’s no question, based on the evidence, that he approved the risky mission over the objections of some of his most senior advisers.
But only the president and his team can explain why they chose to mark the anniversary of the killing in this way, rather than letting others speak for them. And why they decided that this was the time to ding Romney on whether he would have gone after bin Laden is another puzzlement, for in doing so, they gave Republicans an opportunity to cry foul at a moment when the nation might have collectively celebrated the demise of a terrorist.
The president’s trip to Afghanistan, by contrast, was carefully orchestrated, from the secret flight into Bagram Air Base to his emotional remarks to U.S. troops to his somber speech to the nation. Not surprisingly, even some who had been sharply critical of the bin Laden video — including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — praised the president for making the trip and negotiating a new agreement.
Romney responded with an evenhanded statement, saying: “I am pleased that President Obama has returned to Afghanistan. Our troops and the American people deserve to hear from our President about what is at stake in this war. Success in Afghanistan is vital to our nation’s security. It would be a tragedy for Afghanistan and a strategic setback for America if the Taliban returned to power and once again created a sanctuary for terrorists.”
Obama’s visit once again demonstrated the power of a commander in chief to shape events and change the conversation. The timing added drama, although none is ever needed when a president lands in a war zone under the veil of secrecy. Its purpose underscored the long continuum that began in the days after 9/11 and the difficulties the United States has encountered there.
What the aftermath of the visit will bring is only partly predictable. Romney has long been critical of Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan, particularly the pace of withdrawing the surge forces. The reaction to the Obama campaign video about the bin Laden raid showed the sensitivities of Romney and the Republicans to the president’s desire to make foreign policy one of his major advantages in November.
But for a day, Obama commanded the stage and spoke to and for the nation, a powerful display of the advantages available to any president, particularly in an election year.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.