When Republican candidates face off in their first presidential debate this week, the shadow of Osama bin Laden will hang over the event.
The president they have been attacking as a dithering commander-in-chief has, after all, just presided over a military operation that killed America’s foremost enemy nearly a decade after he masterminded the 9/11 attacks.
“They’ve got to be careful how they handle the president,” says former GOP congressman Vin Weber, who is backing fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty. “The country is feeling good about itself for the first time in years, and he is the embodiment of that. The Republicans cannot put that at risk. You don’t want to be the one who pops the bubble.”
“It could certainly have an influence on people’s minds on whether they run or not,” Feehery says. “A lot of people don’t think Obama is vulnerable and are dropping out.”
How long that bubble will last is less than clear in this moment of national celebration. For now, the prospective candidates have limited themselves to canned statements that give Obama some degree of credit or minimize his role. And the dramatic news comes at a sensitive time when the Republican field is widely viewed as weak—and when such potential heavyweights as Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee must decide in the coming weeks whether to take the plunge.
Some GOP strategists say the fallout from the raid in a compound outside Islamabad is not likely to deter would-be candidates from getting into the race.
“While I believe this is a defining moment in President Obama’s presidency, I don’t believe it will change the political calculus of those potential Republican candidates weighing a bid,” says Dan Bartlett, George W. Bush’s former White House counselor. “November 2012 is a political eternity from now… I’m sure the conventional view of Republicans is 2012 will be a referendum on the economy and the fiscal health of our government. I have a hard to time disagreeing with that assessment.”
Weber sees mounting a presidential campaign as such a life-changing decision that a single news event is not likely to alter it: “It puts another penny on the scale against running if you’re undecided, but not much more than that.”
• The Daily Beast’s complete coverage of Osama bin LadenBut John Feehery, a former House Republican leadership aide, says Sunday’s successful operation in Pakistan boosts the perception of the president’s strength. “It could certainly have an influence on people’s minds on whether they run or not,” he says. “A lot of people don’t think Obama is vulnerable and are dropping out.” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour recently joined the likes of Sen. John Thune and Rep. Mike Pence in passing up the race, while others remain on the fence.
Still, party stalwarts aren’t losing hope when it comes to their chances of evicting Obama. “He’ll get to bask in the reflected glory for awhile,” says former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie. “But at the end of the day it’s not going to erase the major issues. He’s not going to be able to run saying, ‘Vote for me because bin Laden was killed while I was president.’”
No one is suggesting that the elimination of bin Laden will magically eliminate the president’s weaknesses or somehow overshadow the ailing economy. After winning the Persian Gulf War in early 1991, George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings shot up to 90 percent and many pundits practically declared the upcoming election moot. By the time Election Day rolled around, domestic issues were dominant and Bush captured just 37 percent of the vote in a three-way contest against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. And, of course, Bush’s son was riding high eight years ago on Mission Accomplished day, when he declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
But the contrast with another former president is instructive. When U.S. helicopters crashed in the desert in the failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, the botched raid cemented Jimmy Carter’s reputation as a bungler as he headed toward a landslide defeat in 1980.
For Obama, who has taken considerable criticism for his handling of the war in Afghanistan and the revolts in Egypt, Libya and Syria, the bin Laden mission could help foster an aura of competence.
“The Republicans have been trying to spin a narrative that Obama is not a strong leader,” says Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant and former administration official. “This definitely puts that to rest, in a tangible way for real people. It shows that Obama is not only ready to answer the phone at 3 a.m., he is ordering the strike that brings down Osama bin Laden.”
Republican political pros, naturally, take a longer view. “It’s going to be seen as a mammoth achievement, no doubt, but there are several ongoing national security crises he has to deal with,” strategist Leslie Sanchez says of Obama. On reflection, she adds, “this should be a time of national celebration: it’s no time to be talking politics.”
But it is nearly impossible to separate politics from arguments about war and domestic security. The 9/11 attacks utterly transformed the American political landscape, and Bush used the terror issue to bludgeon Democrats and build support for the invasion of Baghdad. The 43rd president and longtime adviser Karl Rove weaved a story line that Republicans were willing to do what it takes—from enhanced interrogations to military tribunals—to wage war on terrorism, while Democrats were either weak or reluctant partners at best. That Obama used force to accomplish what Bush could not, especially after bin Laden eluded capture in the Tora Bora mountains, could turn the page on that chapter.
In political terms, the larger question is whether Obama can harness any momentum from the mission to strike deals with recalcitrant Republicans on bread-and-butter matters. That, however, depends on the nature of the momentum. Veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres says Obama will get “a temporary bounce” from bin Laden’s death, but no more than that.
“No question it’s a significant achievement, and one virtually all Americans are applauding,” he says. “But Afghanistan and Iraq were not a significant part of the debate before this. The debate focuses overwhelmingly on domestic issues, and it is likely to revert back to those issues once this moment passes.”
Before it passes, though, potential Republican candidates have to figure out how to strike the proper tone. On Monday, when the president was declaring it “a good day for America” and counterterrorism chief John Brennan was briefing the press at the White House, Newt Gingrich issued a statement that managed to lead with Obama’s predecessor: “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.” Pawlenty had used a similar formulation Sunday.
Mitt Romney’s statement did not mention the incumbent by name: “Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president.”
By contrast, some of those not running for office—notably Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—were more generous in their praise of Obama. Even Rush Limbaugh, one of Obama’s harshest critics, told listeners that “it may be that President Obama single-handedly came up with the technique in order to pull this off.”
However grudging the credit in some quarters, bin Laden’s death does not change the fact that the United States is mired in two wars, and a third if you include Libya. As Bartlett sees it: “The question for the president, his national security team and his political advisers will be: how will these events shape the public’s view of the war in Afghanistan?” If the rationale for invading Afghanistan in 2001 was to topple the regime that harbored al Qaeda, the president may find himself under growing pressure to accelerate troop withdrawals now that the terrorist-in-chief is dead.
Had the mission failed, of course, Obama would have shouldered the blame. But Feehery, for one, says bin Laden’s death should be recognized primarily as a military triumph.
“Obama has to be careful not to overplay this as something he did personally,” says Feehery. “That will alienate some folks.”
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.