As Americans anxiously waited to hear what their young president had to say, the words “national security” hung in the air. Then, when the president spoke on television,he seemed older and more in command than he had seemed the day before. And, as a result, his presidency was transformed.
The date was Oct. 22, 1962. The president was John F. Kennedy, the youngest person ever elected president, in office less than two years. Confronting the existential threat of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles 90 miles from Florida in the communist bastion of Cuba, Kennedy presented a sober, clear and firm statement of where he, and the United States, stood. As a youngster, I remember being both frightened and proud as the president spoke, because the danger seemed very real, but he seemed very much in command.
That memory came back to me when I heard President Obama deliver the news that, at his command, American forces had killed Osama bin Laden. The president was serious, direct and firm. He had done something remarkable, all without leaking the secret planning. Like President Kennedy, he had convened a tightly knit action group of advisers, while reserving the final decisions for himself. Unlike the Cuban missile crisis, the resolution of which was greeted with a sense of relief at drawing back from the nuclear brink, this event brought forth an enthusiastic outpouring of joy and closure nearly 10 years after the dastardly attack on the Twin Towers.
We try our presidents on for size. We walk around with them. We envision them in tough situations. We critique how they dress and the jokes they tell. We judge their families. We test them all the time. President Obama has been facing these tests for more than two years, and all at once he aced the test with one of the great accomplishments of recent years. It was not a complex thing like the health care plan, or a confusing debate like how to reduce the deficit or even what to do in Afghanistan. This was a threat to our lives that every American flat out knows about and understands, and he dealt with it. His leadership image will be forever associated with the killing of bin Laden.
Obama’s success is particularly powerful for Democrats, always one step away from demoralization. The pictures of a Democratic president getting cheered at military bases and making no apologies for a harsh but necessary action will do wonders to erase a generation of Democratic defensiveness on defense. The notion that a Democratic president is a strong leader is one that those of us old enough to remember Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson may recall, but for this generation it is a new flavor.
Ironically, the killing of bin Laden also ensures that Obama’s ability to handle foreign policy will not be a factor in the 2012 election. Republicans have shown little interest in foreign policy after the Iraq war’s unpopularity lost them the House of Representatives in 2006. Republicans have talked little about foreign policy these days except to generally attack Obama as “weak” or “subservient.” That is now a hard, indeed impossible, argument to make.
While the killing of bin Laden greatly enhances Obama’s leadership, it does not guarantee his re-election. The real struggle will be over domestic policy and the economy. We know that the economy is the central factor in any national election, but that is only part of the story. An election is also about how the competing parties will deal with the economy. The Obama White House has not yet found the knack for describing that contest in a way that taps public support for its policies. Obama’s domestic policy plan is quite the opposite of his foreign policy; he shares control with Congress and weighs in near the end of the process. As a result, he often has a confused public that does not quite understand what has been accomplished and how they might benefit from it.
That is why Paul Ryan’s budget plan has been such a blessing for Democrats. His proposal to privatize Medicare is vastly unpopular, so much so that Republican leaders are trying to remove it from budget negotiations. But they are arguing that the only reason to remove it is because Democrats are in the way. That opens the door for Democrats to argue that only they stand between the Republicans and privatization of Medicare. Because virtually all House Republicans voted for the Ryan plan on the House floor, they have handed Democrats a cudgel that is understandable and powerful. Even Democrats might find it hard to fumble a freebie like that.
But Democrats may find themselves frustrated by Obama’s approach to the election. He is unlikely to segue from the successful assault on bin Laden, which he saw as a metaphor for the nation’s common purpose, into a partisan assault on Republicans. If anything, he is likely to even more fully commit himself to looking for common solutions. But even if he does so, he will have to at some point declare the stakes of the election and pick a side.
If nothing else, Obama has, in a moment of crisis, managed to buy himself some respite from the assaults of Republicans and from the disappointment of Democrats. How he uses that space and his image of leadership, will determine the remainder of his presidency.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.