Bin Laden Gone in More Ways Than One

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 31, 2011


The upbeat feeling caused by news of the death of Osama bin Laden was short-lived. Though President Obama is better off with Osama out of the picture, the political repercussions of this successful military operation have already disappeared from the American political arena. Since 2008, Americans have been rightly more concerned with the economic crisis than with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Not surprisingly, the popularity boost for President Obama has begun to fade as the ailing economy has reclaimed its dominant position in the political debate in Washington.


After Obama’s momentous message to the nation on May 1—one month ago to this day—announcing that U.S. troops had killed Bin Laden, Some Obama enthusiasts rushed to the conclusion that the U.S. President had secured his re-election in 2012. When he ordered the assassination of Bin Laden and proudly reported its success to the nation, without directly saying so, Obama made it clear that he achieved the goal that his war-mongering predecessor had failed to accomplish. The Nobel Peace prize recipient had shown that he could also achieve military victories.


The death of Bin Laden was a sweet moment for Obama. Republicans who had criticized him for being soft on terrorism had to concede one big accomplishment to Obama. His approval rating jumped more than 5 points, surpassing the 50% for the first time in 12 months. That was especially rewarding for a president whose approval has shown unimpressively steady during his first two years in office. Though Obama has not seen his approval suffered big falls, he has also found it difficult to get his approval ratings above the 50% mark.


Yet, the killing of bin Laden produced only a very short truce in Washington. President Obama received intensive praise, but only for a few days. The polarized political environment in Washington soon left behind the details of the military operation and the controversy over the way he was killed and went back to business as usual. 


President Obama has continued to push his domestic agenda at home and his multilateralist approach abroad. His recent trip to Europe and his speech on his roadmap vision for a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine show that Obama has not let go of his foreign affairs agenda. In fact, Obama sought to take advantage of his larger international stature after the bin Laden operation to get the interested parties back on the negotiating table in the Middle East. During his European trip, Obama also sought to engage his European allies in a more proactive role to help bring about a peaceful transition to democracy in the Arab world.


However, the domestic front remains as President Obama's main concern. The president has fully launched his re-election campaign. Admittedly, Obama's re-election strategy is aggressive and ambitious. In seeking to raise one billion dollars, the President wants to make it clear that he wants to win re-election and, at the same time, help his party retain control of the Senate and make gains in the House.  Because he proved to be a great fundraiser in 2008 and as he remains the most popular member of the Democratic Party, Obama will be in high demand to campaign on behalf of fellow democrats in close races and in regions where Obama remains very popular.


Republicans campaigned enthusiastically against Obama in 2010, and made significant gains. However, it is unclear that the same strategy will work in 2012, when Obama will get a change to campaign personally on his record. After all, the last time Obama was on the ballot, democrats made gains in both chambers. In the coming months, the President will need to spend countless hours participating in fundraising events. The more events he is invited to attend, the stronger he will be as a candidate next year. Moreover, because democrats running for office will only invite Obama if they believe that the President will help them get votes, the intensity of campaign appearances by Obama will be a good early indicator of his own re-election chances.


Though American elections are always about the economy, voters can only choose between keeping the current government and bringing the opposition back to power. Thus, even though there might be good reasons to criticize Obama for the slow economic recovery, Republicans will need to convince voters that they can do a better job than Obama handling the economy. Before they seriously consider denying Obama a second term, voters will need to be convinced that Republicans have a reasonable plan.


After focusing on Afghanistan and on the war on terror, mass media and public opinion have returned to their domestic focus and concerns. The economy is once again the dominant arena. Republicans and Democrats have gone back to their polarized views and President Obama has reclaimed the economic recovery agenda. Osama bin Laden is gone in more ways than one. His death was a victory for Obama, but the wind tail effect is gone a month after the successful operation.