For President Obama, this may well be remembered as the most extraordinary week of his presidency, and not simply because his administration succeeded in finding and killing the nation’s most sought-after enemy.
Over the course of just five days, beginning on April 27, Obama made two surprise announcements that upended the political landscape. He tended to a deadly natural disaster of historic proportions. He shuffled his national security team. In his spare time, he stared down his potential rivals in next year’s presidential campaign and delivered a well-received comedic performance.
Although his address to the nation on Sunday night declaring the death of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden was by far the most significant of the events — with the potential to shape the rest of Obama’s political career — it was only one of at least five major moments, in five days, that, on their own, would have each been the equivalent of a major earthquake.
Key to the week’s success was immense secrecy — and the president’s remarkable poker face.
Last Wednesday, Obama arrived in the White House briefing room with little notice to the release his long-form birth certificate, an appearance that caught the press corps and the nation by surprise. Even though plans to release the controversial document had been in the works at the White House for a week and a half, not a hint of it had seeped from the West Wing. The move quickly overtook the airwaves, triggering a flood of speculation about the impact on the 2012 race.
Two days later, on April 29, in a meeting in the Diplomatic Room, Obama made the long-awaited decision to launch a ground operation in Pakistan in pursuit of bin Laden. Once again, the secret was tightly held, just as information about bin Laden’s whereabouts had been for nearly nine months, as U.S. officials had grown increasingly confident that they had tracked down the terrorist leader.
But those were only a few items on the presidential calendar. In the intervening days, Obama turned to the less stunning but still vital business of reorganizing his national security team, announcing on Thursday that he would nominate CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, moving Gen. David H. Petraeus to the CIA and diplomat Ryan C. Crocker to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The shifts had the potential to alter the president’s entire approach to the region, even before the bin Laden news broke.
When he flew to Alabama on Friday, Obama visited a region that has seen the death toll climb above 300 since tornadoes struck last week, making it one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history. Had it not been for a mechanical problem, the president would have witnessed a space shuttle launch — also historic, scheduled to be the penultimate one for NASA — at Cape Canaveral the same day.
On Saturday, after news broke that a NATO airstrike had killed a son of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Obama headed to the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, dressed in black tie. His speech, including some pointed barbs directed at the potential Republican presidential candidates in the audience, seemed to be well-received. And when it was finished, he appeared to relax, smiling broadly during a routine by keynote speech by comedian Seth Meyers. He did not betray any hint that a high-stakes operation across the world weighed on his conscience, or that the attacks of 2001 were about to come full circle.
The next morning, while much of Washington recovered from the night of revelry, Obama even took a personal break: He played nine holes golf at Andrews Air Force Base and spent some time on the driving range.
But by shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday, he was back in the White House Situation Room for briefings on the operation in Pakistan. According to a detailed chronology released by the White House, Obama first learned that bin Laden had been tentatively identified as among the dead at 3:50 p.m. Eastern time, many hours after the raid occurred. By 7:01 p.m., the status had been upgraded: Obama was told there was a “high probability” that bin Laden had been killed. Another briefing followed at 8:30, and just an hour and 15 minutes later, at 9:45 p.m., the White House sent word that the president would address the nation shortly. About 11:36 p.m., Obama stepped up to a podium in the East Room, ready to read from a set of teleprompters.
And there, just before midnight, in the presence of a handful of aides and an even smaller group of stunned reporters, Obama announced news that the country and the world had waited almost a decade to hear.