Monday, May 02, 2011


Killing On Stage -- And Off

What a difference a day can make.

A world in which Osama bin Laden is no longer alive is a very different one than 24, 48 or 72 hours before. However, the change felt today because of the news delivered yesterday evening should force a rapid re-think of what occurred over the last few days.

On Saturday evening, like many other journalists, I was in Washington, DC, at the White House Correspondents Dinner.  As several people recalled last night, comedian Seth Meyers made an Osama bin Laden joke (the last in a series about not many people watching C-SPAN: "We're still looking for Osama bin Laden; but how many people know that every day he hosts a show at 4 PM on C-SPAN").  The (yes) C-SPAN camera caught President Obama reacting to the joke. This was one day after he had approved the operation to take out bin Laden. 

Seeing that picture reminded me of something. As I mentioned to a couple friends post-dinner, the president seemed a little "off" in his comedic remarks. Not that they weren't funny; they were (his take out of Donald Trump was done quite well, but the "Lion King" "live video of my birth" killed).  However, I've seen Obama several times do these kind of stand-up gigs and, previously, there was always an endearing "tic" in his performances:  After a particularly amusing line, he would pause and laugh at his own joke -- almost as if he were hearing it for the first time (which might have been the case).  In fact, I've mentioned this before.  In any event, that tic wasn't there Saturday.  He was just locked in to deliver his jokes with a surgical efficiency.  I just put it down to the fact that he was still pissed off over the whole birth certificate issue from the previous few days. He had looked more than a bit petulant at the "birth" presser on Thursday (the 28th).

Of course, now everyone knows that that the OBL mission was coming to a head throughout last week. The ultimate meeting of the national security council OBL team was that same Thursday -- presumably right before the birther-presser, because he headed off to Chicago for a seeming awkwardly-timed Oprah appearance. Yeah, that one, right after he said, "We’ve got better stuff to do.  I’ve got better stuff to do.  We’ve got big problems to solve.  And I’m confident we can solve them, but we’re going to have to focus on them — not on this." 

Again, now we know that it wasn't the economy and the budget and awful weather down South that were the "big problems" Obama was thinking about while lashing "carnival barkers" and the media. It was bin Laden. And, yeah, he knew he had to "perform" in front of the press on Saturday, but he couldn't let anything slip as to what was really going on. So, his focus caused his comedic "tell" to disappear. It's quite possible he concentrated on the "performance" a bit more this year, just because there were so many weighty matters on his mind.   

And that weight carries on from here.

Getting Osama bin Laden is a great military and intelligence achievement. As the spontaneous celebrations that emerged at Ground Zero, outside the White House and around the country show, this was also a much-needed emotional catharsis for the entire country (but, darn it, did we have to bury the body at sea so quick? Cue mics for those who now think bin Laden wasn't really killed). One is tempted to use Gerald Ford's line, delivered in a very different context: "Our long national nightmare is over,"  though the 9/11 hangover has lasted twice the time Watergate did.  However, the president disabused Americans of that temptations in his address Sunday night: "Yet [bin Laden's] death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will -- remain vigilant at home and abroad."

But the dynamics of the effort are changed.  Al Qaeda Prime is now leaderless and there will be inevitably a struggle for who gets to run the terror network -- and those wouldbe bin Ladens may try to outdo one another in producing the most impressive strike against the West.  However, is it merely coincidence that OBL was taken out one day after NATO targeted Moammar Khadafy's Tripoli compound (and reportedly killed members of his family)?  What message does the OBL takeout send to Khadafy? Is he more likely to sue for peace -- and forced retirement? On the other hand, what are the Libyan rebel forces -- who are believed to have strong connections to al Qaeda's North African franchise -- thinking?  Will they get the lesson that -- even if they evict Khadafy -- it might be beneficial to have good relations with the United States.  At least for a while. 

Does this mean that Obama can now actually fulfill his promise of beginning the Afghanistan drawdown this summer?  Everyone presumed that the July deadline was going to be "honored" in the breach. Now, does the US cut a deal with the Taliban and then actually start moving out. If so, wither Hamid Karzai? 

Lots of questions to resolve. But this is a real "game changer, that puts President Obama in an enviable position.  It does not guarantee his reelection, contrary to what some in Twitterland proclaimed. George H.W. Bush hovered around 90 percent approval after the end of Gulf War I.  He was turned out of office with 38 percent 18 months later. That said, Obama undoubtedly gets a few days new honeymoon after this great "get." He further buys himself more time to look like a unifying non-political figure -- regardless where gas prices might be. He can then try praying that the economy and jobs market start picking up. If they don't, he'll be toast -- just like the elder Bush. 

But, those concerns aside, if Republicans weren't worrying before, they should now -- not for policy reasons, but for political ones. The first GOP debate is just days away. The field is still unsettled -- and now the debate will be held in the wake of this great accomplishment in the war on terror (or whatever it has now been renamed). The optics don't look good for the GOP.  But more importantly -- drawing the exact opposite conclusion I did a couple days ago -- it's the Republican base that should worry about its political arm. In barely three days, Barack Obama has gone from seeming to be on the defensive in releasing his birth certificate to looking like he has the deadliest poker face outside of Las Vegas.  Not only did Obama school Donald Trump -- at both the press conference and the Correspondents Dinner -- but it's so obvious now that he was juggling some very serious things while appearing to look dithering and superficial. 

Leading from behind, anyone?  

The GOP is dealing with a man who has pure ice in his veins.  Someone who gives neither media nor opposition any hint at the cards he has yet to play. Oh, and he may raise $1 billion for his re-election campaign.  This combination should make Republican partisans very nervous. 

What a difference a few days can make. 

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