President Obama has placed the killing of Osama bin Laden at the center of his reelection effort in a way that is drawing criticism for turning what he once described as an American victory into a partisan political asset.
Obama’s decision to send a Navy SEAL team deep inside Pakistan to kill bin Laden, the inspiration and ideologue behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, presents enormous political opportunity for a president, especially a Democratic one with no military experience.
But political analysts and Republican critics say Obama is taking a risk in claiming credit for something that as recently as his January State of the Union address he described as “a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces.”
In a series of videos and speeches leading up to the Wednesday anniversary of the raid, the Obama campaign, through high-profile proxies such as Vice President Biden and former president Bill Clinton, has made the president the star of the story. Biden and others have also suggested that Obama’s presumptive Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, would not have pursued bin Laden with the same determination.
“He deserves the right to crow about it a little, but he has to be careful, given how many other issues are out there, even on the counterterrorism front,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.
O’Hanlon said that if there is a terrorist attack against the United States or other foreign policy failures before Election Day, “it would look odd in the midst of all this self-congratulation over bin Laden.”
“But if the election does turn on the economy, for a Democratic president, that’s already progress,” O’Hanlon continued. “To inoculate oneself against foreign policy attack should not be underrated as a political accomplishment.”
Obama campaigned four years ago on a pledge to end partisanship in Washington, and some analysts say the new focus he has placed on his role in the bin Laden killing may undermine that image in the minds of swing voters who proved decisive in 2008.
At the same time, Obama’s decision to authorize the raid over the objection of some key advisers could blunt Romney’s ongoing attempts to portray the president as weak abroad, even as Iran’s uranium enrichment program and Syria’s brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators continue in the face of U.S. policy to end them.
Speaking at a White House news conference Monday alongside Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Obama said, “I hardly think you’ve seen any excessive celebration taking place here.”
“The American people rightly remember what we as a country accomplished in bringing to justice somebody who killed over 3,000 of our citizens,” he said. “And it’s a mark of the excellence of our intelligence teams and our military teams, a political process that worked. And I think for us to use that time for some reflection, to give thanks to those who participated, is entirely appropriate, and that’s what’s been taking place.”
How much Obama’s foreign policy record will influence voters in an election year in which the economic recovery remains fragile is unclear. Obama received only a brief bump in his approval rating after bin Laden’s death.
But in contrast to domestic policy, where Congress has a far larger role to play, a president is able to stake a far clearer claim to foreign-policy success and carve out, for better or worse, a distinct record. Voters often view a president’s leadership on those issues as a proxy for overall character.
For Democratic incumbents, in particular, a successful foreign-policy record can help address broader concerns over competence and resolve — or reinforce — them. The politically enervating Iran hostage crisis and failed rescue attempt helped doom President Jimmy Carter’s bid for a second term.
Republicans, too, have seen foreign policy achievement change character perceptions.
The 1989 invasion of Panama and the successful management of the Persian Gulf War helped eliminate the “wimp factor” that shadowed George H.W. Bush before he took office. He lost his reelection bid after failing to improve a poor economy.
Obama is not letting this moment pass quietly. Using the White House Situation Room as a backdrop, he recorded an interview about the bin Laden mission with NBC News that is scheduled to be broadcast Wednesday.
And in recent days, Obama advisers have sought to make the link between his bin Laden decision and presidential character.
The usually publicly reticent John O. Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, appeared on three news shows Sunday morning to discuss the state of al-Qaeda a year after bin Laden’s death.
In a speech Monday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Brennan continued to carry the message, saying that “the death of bin Laden was our most strategic blow yet against al-Qaeda.”
“Credit for that success belongs to the courageous forces who carried out that mission, at extraordinary risk to their lives, to the many intelligence professionals who pieced together the clues that led to bin Laden’s hideout, and to President Obama, who gave the order to go in,” he said.
The Obama campaign also released a seven-minute video Monday that reviews the president’s record, with an emphasis on the problems he inherited from the previous Republican administration.
It includes a roll call of al-Qaeda leaders killed since Obama took office and draws on footage of the television reports from the night Obama announced bin Laden’s death from the East Room of the White House.
The video follows another released last week in which Clinton praises Obama’s courage for authorizing the mission. It also hints that Romney, who once questioned the impact that bin Laden’s death would have on al-Qaeda’s overall operations, would not have done the same.
The Obama campaign has also put Biden forward to deliver the message.
Addressing the New York University School of Law last week, Biden cited bin Laden’s name at least 10 times in a speech that the campaign billed as the first critique of Romney’s foreign policy. Biden said a bumper sticker capturing the essence of Obama’s record would read, “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”
“You have to ask yourself, if Governor Romney had been president, could he have used the same slogan — in reverse?” Biden said. “People are going to make that judgment. It’s a legitimate thing to speculate on.”
In a statement after the speech, Frank Carlucci and John Lehman, two Reagan administration national security officials now advising Romney, said bin Laden’s killing was “a momentous day for all Americans, and we all give the president credit.”
“But we are saddened to see the president of the United States politicize that event, even reducing it to a campaign slogan,” Carlucci and Lehman said in the statement.
Obama campaign officials have pointed out that during the last presidential election cycle, Romney criticized Obama’s stated position that he would send U.S. forces into Pakistan to kill bin Laden if the opportunity arose. Several Republicans called Obama, then a U.S. senator, naive for saying so. Then-Sen. Joe Biden, a rival for the Democratic nomination, did also.
At the Monday news conference, Obama said he would “recommend that everybody take a look at people’s previous statements in terms of whether they thought it was appropriate to go into Pakistan and take out bin Laden.”
“I assume that people meant what they said when they said it,” Obama said. “I said that I’d go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did. If there are others who have said one thing and now suggest they’d do something else, then I’d go ahead and let them explain it.”
Staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.