In the end, that concern was dispositive for Obama. “It’s important to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool,” he told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes. “We don’t need to spike the football.”
A tough call, no doubt, but I suspect that the president is right. True, the fact that conspiracy theories will now surely thrive in some quarters (mainly, again, in the Arab world) is regrettable. Also true, as Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate shows, he is not immune to capitulating to the freak show when it serves his purposes. But there is a vast difference between such capitulation when the only potential price is your pride and when doing so could put people in harm’s way. Especially when hard-core proofers, like hard-core birthers and hard-core truthers, gaze upon any piece of visual evidence and think only one thing: Photoshop!
For some conservatives, the photo controversy has been one of a handful of very slender reeds to grasp onto in this time of outsize Obaman attainment. (He cares more about Muslim anger than American exultation.) Another is the battle over credit: that Bush deserves as much as or more than Obama. And still another is Panetta’s acknowledgment that some of the intelligence used to track bin Laden came from detainees subject to enhanced interrogation. (RedState Morning Briefing headline: “Waterboarding Worked.”) Put aside the merits of the arguments here, which could fill an entire column. Instead simply note the sheer desperation that is fueling them, the frantic efforts on the right to re-spin a situation that is, for the moment, already fully spun—in a direction that scares the GOP fairly senseless.
And with good reason. Before deep-sixing bin Laden, Obama was looking increasingly shaky politically, his approval ratings sliding, the percentage of voters saying the nation is on the wrong track hovering close to 70. He looks a lot more solid now. Barring a terrorist event on domestic soil for which he is blamed, his national-security credentials will be difficult to challenge. The perception of him as a strong and competent leader is bound to soar. In one fell swoop, he has consigned to the dustbin the Republican caricature of him as a feckless, dithering, weak-kneed law professor. The meme of Obama as Jimmy Carter redux is no more.
But now Obama must confront (and avoid) the possibility of a new meme: being cast as George Herbert Walker Bush, the sequel. Recall, please, that back in 1991, after winning the first Gulf War, 41’s approval rating skyrocketed to 89 percent. And what did he do with all that love? He sat back, put his feet up, and basked in it, coasting into the jaws of a bad economy—only to find himself beaten in his reelection bid by the philandering, draft-dodging, dope-smoking governor of a small, poor, obscure southern state.
Now, you might point out that none of the actual or potential Republicans in the 2012 field has anything like the chops of William Jefferson Clinton. Indeed, of the five candidates who appeared at the first Republican presidential debate of the year in South Carolina last week—Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum—there wasn’t even a Republican Paul Tsongas in the room. Taking a gander at this motley crew, it will be sorely tempting for Obama to recline on his OBL-spawned laurels and play it serenely safe in the months ahead.
Tempting, but potentially disastrous. If the economy remains in the state it’s in today come Labor Day next year, the ending of bin Laden will be all but forgotten as a salient voting issue, and Obama will be vulnerable, more vulnerable than he would find plausible, or even imaginable, today.
And so Obama must resist the desire to click on the cruise control. He must seek to capitalize on the moment that OBL’s demise has granted him, in which he once again has the stature and political capital available to do big things. With the economy largely out of his control at this juncture, the two most obvious areas where boldness is possible are the budget (leading the way to a grand bargain on deficit reduction and entitlement and tax reform) and Afghanistan (leading our troops home). Both would require him to take considerable risks. But if there’s anything that Obama should have learned from this past extraordinary and exhilarating week, it’s that with big risks come big rewards.