Saturday, May 7, 2011

Collateral benefit

The U.S. Special Forces operation that took down more than Osama bin Laden on Sunday took down more than Osama bin Laden. Another victim, at least for now, is the downbeat perception of Obama’s abilities to lead as president, a perception eagerly cultivated by his political opponents.

The assault’s success, and the relatively muted way President Obama has presided over the end of this tangible and symbolic phase of the War on Terrorism, will have at least short-term positive effects — collateral benefit, if you will — for the commander in chief.

Even allowing for the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mode of impatience loose generally in the nation and absolutely in the media, the mission and its outcome will resonate in ways that resist the spasmodic nature of partisan politics.

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You saw some of that in the first of the post-operation opinion polls. The president’s overall approval rating surged nine points to 56 percent, according to a Pew/Washington Post poll. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey placed Obama’s approval rating at 52 percent, a four-point increase from the month before. The USA Today/Gallup poll had similar upbeat results: 32 percent said they were more confident in Obama as commander-in-chief, and in the Ipsos-Reuters poll, 39 percent volunteered that their view of Obama’s leadership had improved since May 1.

“Overnight polls are notoriously fickle,” reported Michael Muskal of the Los Angeles Times. “But the polls agree on the basic thrust that the deadly raid politically helped Obama who announced that he will seek reelection in 2012 against a yet-to-be-decided Republican candidate.

“Americans also feel more positively about Obama’s role as president, which has been under pressure regarding domestic issues such as the economy and the federal budget deficit,” Muskal reported.

You’d expect the overnights to be glowing. But six days later, today’s Presidential tracking poll from the conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports found that 86 percent of voters approve of the president’s decision to authorize taking out bin Laden. Fifty-one percent of voters said they at least somewhat approve of the president's action — the highest level of overall approval for the president in four months.

Fifty-three percent now give Obama a high grade on national security matters, a spike of 14 points from a week ago. Similarly, Rasmussen reports, 55 percent now believe the United States and its allies are winning the War on Terror. That’s up 23 points from a month ago. Only 11 percent now think terrorists are winning, the most optimistic assessment since April 2004, Rasmussen said.

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If this were a war, all of the above would amount to one part of a two-prong offensive. The other one was his deft exercise of the ceremony of the office. On Thursday the president came to Manhattan and made an appearance with the firefighters of Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 of the New York City Fire Department, a squad whose ranks were decimated on Sept. 11, 2001.

He also met with police officers from the 1st Precinct of the New York City Police Department before laying a wreath downtown at Ground Zero.

“What happened on Sunday,” the president said at Engine 54, “... it sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home that when we say ‘we will never forget,’ we mean what we say. Our commitment to make sure that justice was done was something that transcended politics, transcended party. It didn’t matter which administration was in, it didn’t matter who was in charge.”

The low-key dimensions of the visit, the handshakes and private words with the cops and firefighters, the quiet decorum — all of it was pitch perfect. No MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banners anywhere in evidence; not much in the way of presidential trappings. Just the man, reaching out, one on one.

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The assault on Abbottabad and its eloquent White House aftermath may well freeze in place much of the political machinery being arrayed against him in the runup to the start of the 2012 presidential campaign. The flawlessness of the operation — the Swiss couldn’t build a watch that worked any more precisely than this did — greatly reinforces the president’s bona fides on decision-making and the deft use of U.S. military force.

The operation’s success, to be shortly followed by the first of the long-planned withdrawals from Afghanistan, should over time redound nicely to the president’s advantage among the American armed forces. For obvious reasons, nobody’s more a fan of judicious use of the military than the military itself.

But what happened on Sunday, more than eighteen months before the 2012 election, places Barack Obama in a new and hugely powerful light. And it puts his Republican challengers (whoever they ultimately are) on notice: Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing’s more problematic to their presidential prospects than a Democratic-branded national success they can’t spin to their advantage.

This time a few weeks back, remember, billionaire publicity enthusiast Donald Trump was holding forth about the veracity of the presidential birth certificate. In the ensuing days, after the president released the long form of that document, some in the conservative mob were out for more blood. You could see where they were going: Well, how about those college transcripts, sir?

That’s history. In the short term, at least, you won’t hear a mumblin word from the birthers abiding by their own political tweak on Ecclesiastes — yea, knowing there is a time to speak and a time to STFU.

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The pivot back to the economy is inevitable. With Congress back in full swing, the partisan skirmishes that characterized the budget debate will crank up again. The Labor Department reported Friday that 244,000 new jobs were added in April, but the unemployment rate ticked up to 9 percent as more people resumed looking for work. And the same glowing Rasmussen tracking poll also found that 36 percent of Americans give Obama reviewed his handling of the economy in positive light, and 42 percent said the president is doing a poor job on the economy.

And even with this triumph in the international arena, there will be those for whom no good deed should go unpunished. Questions remain about our future relationship with Pakistan, and the roughly $2 billion that flows into Islamabad as foreign aid every year.

Unintended Consequences Dept.: Perversely, last weekend’s targeted operation may have worked almost too well. Its swift success proves conclusively that stealth boots on the ground can be highly effective against terrorism. We could hear the argument that the success of the May Day mission, and its relatively low cost in dollars and collateral damage, undercuts some of the rationale for future Predator drone strikes in the region.

But for now, President Obama is quietly, tastefully savoring the fulfillment of a pledge made during the 2008 campaign, and its bankable dividends. The Obama Stock Exchange has been a volatile place these days, rising and falling a lot like the other ones. This has been a week for investors — the voters — to bid up the shares, anticipating a big return on their investment next November.

Image credits: Obama at Ground Zero: AFP. White House Situation Room, Obama in profile: Pete Souza/The White House. Obama at Engine 54: Still from White House video. U.S. employment rate graph:, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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