Commander in Chief

By Romano, Andrew; Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, May 16, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Commander in Chief


Romano, Andrew, Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Andrew Romano and Daniel Klaidman

The daring bin Laden raid is being billed as the new Obama. The truth is, he's been itching to pull this trigger all along.

The echoes were unmistakable. On April 24, 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent eight helicopters to rescue the 52 Americans held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Iran. One crashed en route; one turned back; one malfunctioned. Spooked, Carter decided to cut his losses and abort the mission--but not before one of the remaining choppers sliced into a transport plane, igniting a blaze that killed eight servicemen. Carter's presidency never recovered.

For a brief, anxious moment, President Obama's national-security team, gathered in the West Wing on May 1, suffered a sickening sense of deja vu. As the helicopter carrying a team of Navy SEALs dipped behind the high concrete walls of Osama bin Laden's headquarters in Abbottabad, Pakistan, it sputtered, then stalled. The moment was "indescribably tense," a White House official tells NEWSWEEK--not only for the soldiers, who were about to enter enemy territory without a clear exit strategy, but for President Obama himself, who had ordered up the risky mission, forgoing safer options. The entire Situation Room was thinking the same thing: is this Iran all over again?

By now, the whole world knows it wasn't; the commandos landed and got their man. It was a stunning success that will likely end the comparisons to the Georgia Democrat that conservatives have been leveling at Obama since 2008, when they first started calling him a "Carteresque rerun" (The Washington Times) who is "tough on America's allies and soft on its enemies" (National Review). The question now, however, is whether "one of the--gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory," as U.S. counterterrorism chief John Brennan characterized the mission, will help Obama avoid Carter's larger fate as well: a one-term presidency that petered out when a tough-talking Republican insurgent convinced voters that their commander in chief was too weak to lead.

The early evidence suggests that bin Laden's death is improving public opinion of Obama. A NEWSWEEK/DAILY BEAST survey found no immediate bump, but other polls have him on the upswing. And the president's numbers were likely to rise further after his scheduled May 5 speech at Ground Zero--a reprise of the bullhorn address that united the country behind George W. Bush in the days after the towers fell. But ultimately, Abbottabad alone cannot create a renewed sense of purpose among Americans or ensure Obama's reelection. In a week or two, voters will go back to fretting about unemployment and the national debt. For that reason, bin Laden's demise is best understood as an opportunity for Obama--an opportunity to regain control of the national conversation, strengthen his hand in preparation for 2012, and bring the country together. If he seizes it, and if a new terrorist attack doesn't change the game yet again, bin Laden's death could become the defining moment of his presidency. "Throughout history there have been pivot points for presidents, from Truman's Berlin Airlift in 1948 to Bush after 9/11," says historian Douglas Brinkley. "Americans have always liked Obama, but they never knew whether he was a real commander in chief. Now they do."

In order to understand Obama's new opportunity, it's important to trace his national-security mindset back to its origins. Despite his idealistic rhetoric, Obama had evolved into a hardheaded realist by the time he ran for president in 2008. In the years before and after 9/11, he forged a coherent set of views about the roots of Islamic rage and the economic and social conditions that breed violent extremism. But as he said in his famous 2002 speech opposing the war in Iraq, he was not against war in general--only "dumb" wars that did not advance clear American interests.

Richard Clarke, who was George W. Bush's counterterrorism chief on 9/11 and who'd been advising Obama since mid-2007, knew that his new boss's intellectual rigor was an enormous asset.

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