Among the (many) ways the killing of Osama bin Laden helps President Obama politically is that it acts as a significant circuit breaker.
Prior to the raid that ended with a bullet in the head of bin Laden, a very damaging political narrative was forming. Mr. Obama was seen (with some justification, in my view) as increasingly inept and feckless, a man who preferred to “lead from behind.” Worse for Obama, there was a growing sense that America was in decline, well on the path to becoming a second rate power, and the president saw his task as shepherding us through this phase. The specter of Jimmy Carter was beginning to haunt the Obama administration.
For now, at least, that narrative is stopped in its tracks. It isn’t simply that the raid succeeded; it is the fact that President Obama took a risky (but wise) gamble in opting for sending in Navy SEALs instead of bombing the bin Laden compound to smithereens. The president’s decision was rewarded. Bin Laden was killed; his body has been identified; a treasure trove of intelligence was reportedly found; and innocent lives were saved. Mr. Obama’s role was not incidental in all this; it was his decision that made it come to pass. That won’t be forgotten. Bin Laden, after all, had taken a special place in the moral imagination of the American people. He was an emblem of evil.
This doesn’t mean the president is unbeatable by any means. The objective conditions of the country, most especially in the economy, remain fragile. Obama’s record, including his foreign policy record, won’t be airbrushed from history. And a lot can go wrong in the world between now and 2012. A continued stalemate in Libya, another quarter of anemic growth, higher gas prices in the summer and/or an uptick in unemployment will have a greater effect on the 2012 election than what happened Sunday night in Abbottabad. Killing bin Laden may be seen as a wonderful but isolated incident rather than one that changes the arc of events.
Nevertheless, Osama bin Laden’s death happened on Barack Obama’s watch. He’ll receive credit for that and he’ll deserve it.