05.04.11

How Osama bin Laden's Death Healed the Democrats' Rift

The big political payoff from Osama bin Laden's killing won't be just boosting President Obama's stock, but bringing him and congressional Democrats—who'd been at each other's throats—closer together, says Patricia Murphy.

The big political payoff from Osama bin Laden’s killing won’t be just boosting President Obama’s stock, but bringing him and congressional Democrats—who’d been at each others throats—closer together, says Patricia Murphy. Plus, full coverage of Osama bin Laden's death.

When President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, the news, not surprisingly, gave him a quick bounce in the opinion polls.

But the successful mission also gave the president a badly needed boost among members of his own party in Congress, who had complained as recently as last month that on issues from immigration reform to tax cuts, Obama had failed to live up to his campaign promises. Taking out bin Laden, Democrats say, is the first of several promises they hope Obama will now be able to keep.

The Daily Beast's Complete Osama bin Laden Coverage

And while there may be complications, particularly on the war in Afghanistan, Obama may have shed his reputation as a plodding decision-maker seen by his allies as too quick to compromise with the other side.

“In my conversations with senior House and Senate members, there has been enormous tension between Democrats on Capitol Hill and the White House since the midterm elections,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and party fundraiser. “Where there can be a very defining change is in the president’s political capital with Democrats in both the House and Senate.”

Since nothing succeeds like success in Washington, Zimmerman and other top Democrats predicted Wednesday that the bin Laden triumph could return Obama to his 2008 form, when his personality united the party and his coattails lifted many Democrats to victory.

Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking party leader, said Sunday’s events will help Obama among skeptical House Democrats on the legislative battles they plan to wage over the next several months.

“Something this big, and pulling it off, is very helpful to him and helpful to this caucus,” Clyburn said of Obama. “I think it will be very, very helpful during these budget debates… People are going to respect his process a little more now.”

“I think that so many in the caucus have questioned how he goes through making decisions,” Clyburn said of Obama. “Something this big, and pulling it off, is very helpful to him and helpful to this caucus, and I think it will be very, very helpful during these budget debates… People are going to respect his process a little more now.”

While the events won’t erase all of the policy differences between Obama and congressional Democrats, rank-and-file members say their caucus could benefit—along with the president’s 2012 chances—when Obama can tout his national-security strategy for successfully hunting down the 9/11 mastermind.

“One of the issues that the Republican Party has always used and would use against him is homeland security, and this minimizes the possibility that it could be used,” said Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee.

Cohen said there’s “no question” the benefits of Obama’s victory would trickle down to other Democrats on the ballot and added that, for a caucus that suffered heavy losses in 2010, they may finally have reason for confidence in 2012.

“It's helped people feel that, while we've always felt the president would be reelected, it's even more likely now,” he said.

Even Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, a vocal critic of the president after the White House compromises with Republicans on the Bush tax cuts and 2010 budget, called Obama’s relationship with Hill Democrats “very positive” in the wake of bin Laden’s death.

“Everyone feels terrific about the success of the bin Laden mission and the president did a great job on that, so that gives him some wind at his back and some additional respect here,” Welch said.

But Welch also predicted that with bin Laden’s demise, Obama could find more opposition, not less, for a protracted, expansive military commitment in Afghanistan.

“We were successful not because we had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, but because we had good, coordinated intelligence and excellent Special Forces that did the strike and succeeded,” he said. “I'm getting a real sense that a lot of people on both sides doubt the wisdom of a nation-building strategy.”

But the bin Laden killing is “a great boost” for Obama in his role as commander in chief, which “obviously benefits all of the Democrats on that issue.”

Republicans say privately that even if public confidence in Obama and the Democrats on national security lasts through the 2012 elections, presidents are almost always reelected based on their domestic success, not military missions in faraway countries. If that were the case, George H.W. Bush would have enjoyed not just a victory lap but a second term following the Persian Gulf War.

“Come November 2012, this will not be an issue down ballot for either party,” a Republican strategist said. “The focus last cycle was all about jobs, spending, and health care—not national security. And barring another major attack, it’s hard to see how in a few weeks or months, the focus is not back fully on those issues.”

Patricia Murphy is a writer in Washington, D.C., where she covers Congress and politics.