Obama completed the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden and is rightfully credited with making a series of tough calls. This doesn’t, however, mean that the underlying dynamics of the 2012 race have changed.
On this I agree with pollster Charlie Cook, who explained:
Democrats will fervently hope that the public will see this as a seminal moment in which people begin to see and appreciate President Obama in a new light, much as President Bill Clinton’s speech after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in retrospect, was a turning point for his presidency.
But it might be a mistake to assume that it is a more enduring game-changer in terms of the politics of 2012 or that it will recast Obama as much as it did for Clinton.
Initial polling doesn’t suggest a huge jump in Obama’s approval, and that may be, as Cook argues, because fundamentals of our domestic and international challenges, unlike in 2001, have not changed:
The numbers of long-term unemployed are troubling. The enormous growth in demand for energy, particularly oil and gasoline in China, India, and other emerging economies threatens to keep energy prices unstable. Add to that the political instability in the Middle East and North Africa, which are trouble spots from energy, security, and humanitarian perspectives. . . . While the overall dynamics of the war in Afghanistan are unchanged, whenever a real exit from the country begins, this will make it a little easier. Sadly, we can’t begin to bring troops home today; a primary rationale for this war has now been fulfilled, a bit of unfinished business finally completed.
What’s most important is how all of this will be seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What will be the perception throughout the region, the impact on the insurgents and the citizens of that troubled part of the world? Will this make the U.S. mission there easier or more difficult? Those are the unknowns. This moment badly needed to happen but what it really means, the worldwide political import, is unknown.
Nor does it mean, as some pundits have suggested, that GOP challengers can’t go after the president or that foreign policy is off the table. One point on which Obama is still vulnerable is defense spending. It might sound great, to the neoisolationists on right and left and to the fiercest budget hawk, to chop defense, but Tim Pawlenty had it right when he told the Des Moines Register: “I don’t think given the threats we face and how . . . they can materialize and how massive the damage can be to the United States, that we can afford to diminish our defense capabilities.” It is certainly fair game to ask how Obama’s proposed cuts are going to hinder the ability of future presidents to run critical missions essential to our national security. And more broadly, Pawlenty is on the money when he argues that bin Laden’s killing is “not the full scope of our foreign policy or our national defense posture and there will still be a robust debate about what he has done so far and what he will do in the future.”
That doesn’t mean Republicans shouldn’t fine-tune their messages. Broad, sweeping accusations about Obama’s hesitancy to use hard power or his departure from Bush-era policies that kept us safe aren’t going to work, now that he’s essentially thrown in the towel on most of the national security positions on which he ran for president. His “apology tour” is a distant memory. That doesn’t mean, however, there isn’t valid criticism to be made on everything from his adversarial posture toward Israel to his passivity toward China and Russia. A Republican adviser tells me: “Unfortunately — for us, for Obama, for our allies — there are huge foreign policy challenges right now that this guy is screwing up. This was a brilliantly planned and executed tactical military operation — not foreign policy. On actual foreign policy I think some chickens will come home to roost in the near future.”
Another experienced Republican adviser says succinctly, “I’d focus like a laser beam on issues.” The adviser explains, “[T]he real debate is what kind of democracy are we going to have and how much are we willing to pay for it? What is the proper role of the state in individual’s lives?” And, the adviser adds, “I wouldn’t try to get in the news cycle this week.”A 2008 presidential operative concurs: “I think it focuses the campaign exactly on Obama’s weakness . . . the economy. Isn’t that what happened with George H.W. Bush?”
What Republicans shouldn’t do is imitate Obama’s lust for defense cutting or his indifference to human rights. That would be a sure-fire way to turn off the base (both hawks and value voters) and to give Obama the upper hand as the more responsible figure on foreign policy.