President Barack Obama’s approval of a U.S. mission that killed Osama bin Laden undercuts a central tenet of Republican campaigns for the White House: that Democrats can’t pull the trigger.
As he seeks re-election next year, Obama can claim a willingness to take military action -- including authorizing an attack on pirates in the Indian Ocean, the firing of missiles on Libya and a successful raid that landed helicopters inside Pakistan in the compound of the world’s most-wanted fugitive.
“The fact that he got Osama bin Laden is something that’s going to be a very quick and powerful talking point right up to the 2012 election,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Given the success of the operation, President Obama has clear and undisputed credentials” in the national security area.
Ullyot, who called yesterday’s operation the highest- profile military effort since the Iraq war, said the bin Laden raid also highlights the relative lack of foreign policy experience among the potential 2012 Republican candidates.
“There’s very little defense or foreign policy experience among the field as it now stands,” he said. Ullyot also said that specific praise for Obama on the killing of bin Laden offered by several of the Republicans considering a presidential run “shows they acknowledge how powerful this moment is.”
Middle East Trips
Most of the leading possible candidates, some of whom will gather later this week in South Carolina for their first debate, have stronger credentials on taxes, budgets and business than in foreign affairs. Among the Republicans, former governors Sarah Palin of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas have traveled to the Middle East in recent months to boost their foreign policy resumes.
Obama, who entered the White House with just four years of U.S. Senate experience following eight years in the Illinois Senate, faced a similar challenge in his 2008 campaign.
In making their case against Obama, the major Republicans who may seek the presidency had been spotlighting rising gasoline prices, the shaky U.S. economy and a national debt that’s approaching $14.3 trillion. That was the focus at a multicandidate forum April 29 in Manchester, New Hampshire, themes the Republicans will hammer at throughout the campaign.
The killing of bin Laden, though, caused some of the potential candidates to laud the president. Others extolled the U.S. military while skirting mention of Obama.
Romney, the front-runner for the nomination in some polls, included praise for Obama in a statement he issued six minutes after the president finished his nationally televised comments on bin Laden’s death.
“This is a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere,” Romney said. “Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president.”
Tim Pawlenty, a former governor from Minnesota exploring a presidential bid, issued a statement that included praise for Obama, as did former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, another possible candidate.
“I commend both President George W. Bush who led the campaign against our enemies through seven long years and President Obama who continued and intensified the campaign in both Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Gingrich said in his statement.
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate who may seek the White House next year, didn’t mention Obama in a statement on bin Laden’s killing posted to her Facebook webpage. That was also the case for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a favorite of the Tea Party movement who is also considering a bid.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek said the bin Laden operation will likely enhance Obama’s hand in pursuing both his foreign policy and domestic goals.
“This is a big victory for Obama,” Dallek said. “It strengthens him not only in foreign relations, but with the American public and I think with the Congress, too.”
Lawmakers who during the 2008 campaign criticized Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience and expressed concerns about how he would deal with national security were among those congratulating him for the bin Laden raid.
“This is a success that happened on President Obama’s watch as commander and chief and he deserves credit for it,” Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats told reporters on Capitol Hill today. Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, supported Republican presidential nominee John McCain, an Arizona senator, in the 2008 race.
The political benefits of military success can be transitory, said Christopher Gelpi, a political science professor at Duke University who has studied public opinion and war.
The bounce in public approval Bush received after U.S. forces captured Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in December 2003 faded within months, Gelpi said. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, won a victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War in early 1991 only to lose re-election in late 1992 to Democrat Bill Clinton.
“It’s a one-time event but as that event fades in salience people turn their attention back to the economy,” Gelpi said. “We can’t kill bin Laden every day. But people experience the economy every day.”
The long-awaited retribution against the leader of the Sept. 11 attacks comes as polls show Obama’s approval rating near the lows of his presidency.
A CBS News/New York Times poll taken April 15-20 showed 46 percent of Americans approving and 45 percent disapproving of the job Obama is doing as president. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The successful operation “takes off the table” questioning of Obama’s handling of the war on terrorism, “certainly in the short term and probably in the long term,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.
Still, Goeas said Obama is likely to receive only a short- term benefit in public opinion. “What’s driving his negatives has little to do with foreign affairs and everything to do with the economy,” he said.
The success of the NATO-led mission in Libya that Obama joined also remains to be seen, as the battle continues between rebels and forces loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Obama also has authorized military action against Indian Ocean pirates. In February, Somali pirates killed four American hostages aboard their yacht before it was taken over by the U.S. military and the pirates were killed or captured. In another incident, in April 2009, U.S. commandos freed an American cargo- ship captain being held hostage and killed three pirates.
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