The White House advance team put the presidential podium at an odd angle in the East Room, so that an oil painting showing George Washington would be in the shot behind President Obama. This made it appear from a certain view that Washington was patting Obama on the back.
The nation was unified (for the moment) in a way it hadn’t been in nearly a decade. And Obama had returned at midday Monday to the East Room — the same room he used 12 hours earlier to share the news of bin Laden’s demise — for a victory lap.
“I think we can all agree: This is a good day for America,” the president told his White House audience, assembled for the posthumous awarding of the Medal of Honor to two U.S. soldiers who fought in the Korean War. “Our country has kept its commitment to see that justice is done. The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden.”
The killing of the al-Qaeda leader went a long way toward restoring American confidence after nearly a decade of war. For Obama, it offered the hope of instant renewal. The fight against terrorism, it is often said, doesn’t end with a treaty signing on a battleship, but this was perhaps the most visible marker of success.
Just last week, Obama found himself in the demeaning position of releasing his birth certificate to try to prove to doubters that he is legally qualified to hold his office. On Saturday night, he joked about his low poll numbers.
Now, all of a sudden, his political opponents dared not criticize him. Two would-be 2012 challengers — Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty — issued statements congratulating him. “2012 Election Cancelled,” the humorist Andy Borowitz wrote in a spoof news story on his Web site.
The unity after the 2001 terrorist attacks lasted a few months; this could go on for a few days, if that. On Monday morning, Japanese tourists had already supplanted the patriotic flash mob that had assembled outside the White House on Sunday night.
But Obama is now the guy who found and killed bin Laden (albeit with an apparent assist from the Bush administration’s interrogation program). And that could do much to reverse the growing impression of Obama as weak. “The possible long-term dividend for Obama is that it may address concerns he is not a strong leader,” said Andy Kohut, who runs the nonpartisan Pew Research Center polls. Only 53 percent of Americans viewed the president as a “strong leader” earlier this year, well below his standing in other attributes.
Monday’s Medal of Honor event was set well before Navy SEALs sent bin Laden to his just end, but Obama couldn’t have designed a better event for wrapping himself in the glory of the military. The room was full of men and women in military dress uniforms. Military buglers played “Ruffles and Flourishes,” followed by “Hail to the Chief.”
Obama entered briskly, erased a quick grin, then assumed a prayerful pose as a military chaplain spoke of being “stirred by the news of these past 24 hours.” He had a bounce in his step when he walked to the podium, and his delivery, done with old-fashioned text rather than a teleprompter, was more natural than usual.
“Today we are reminded that as a nation there’s nothing we can’t do when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we work together, when we remember the sense of unity that defines us as Americans,” he said. “And we’ve seen that spirit, that patriotism in the crowds that have gathered here outside the White House, at Ground Zero in New York, and across the country.”
The commander in chief requested applause for his defense secretary and his joint chiefs. “And this is not in the script, but let me just acknowledge that, without the leadership of Bob Gates, Mike Mullen, Hoss Cartwright, today and yesterday would not have happened,” he ad-libbed.
The ceremony was to recognize two young men who died in battle 60 years ago, but it was a feel-good moment, too, for Obama.
Recounting the story of one of the men, he used some presidential prerogative: “Tony was a tall guy. He lived Hawaii, swimming in the ocean, playing basketball. Sounds like my kind of guy.”
A moment later, he added: “I went to high school with one of their cousins, Whitey. Tell Whitey I said, ‘Howzit?’ ”
No need to ask Obama howzit, though. The answer is obvious: Much better.