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Politics Not Far From Obama, Romney On Bin Laden Anniversary

On the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs, there were two contrasting scenes to consider.

One was of President Obama in Afghanistan on a surprise visit, speaking to U.S. troops as their commander in chief in the nation whence the SEALs departed for their successful raid into Abbottabad in neighboring Pakistan.

Some 7,000 miles away in New York City was Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, accompanied by Rudolph Giuliani, the city's former mayor, at a firehouse in New York City that lost a number of firefighters on Sept. 11.

While Obama was in Afghanistan, Mitt Romney marked the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death at a campaign photo op at a New York City fire station with 9/11 ties.
John Moore / Getty Images
Getty Images
While Obama was in Afghanistan, Mitt Romney marked the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death at a campaign photo op at a New York City fire station with 9/11 ties.

Those two scenes underscored how the anniversary of the killing of the most infamous terrorist in world had become entangled in the 2012 presidential race.

The Obama re-election campaign arguably started it with a campaign ad featuring former President Bill Clinton praising Obama for making a gutsy call.

The ad then questioned whether Romney would have made the same decision, suggesting that the former Massachusetts governor wouldn't have, based on comments he made in 2007 that the U.S. shouldn't put its all into getting the terrorist leader or announce beforehand its willingness to enter Pakistan unilaterally to do so.

Romney has responded by giving Obama credit for the decision and saying that, of course, he would've made the same decision as the current commander in chief. On Monday, he appeared to diminish Obama's action by saying even former President Jimmy Carter, Republican shorthand for White House fecklessness, would have given the same order.

On Tuesday, on CBS This Morning, Romney dropped the bar from Carter to "any thinking American" who would have ordered the raid. In other words, it was more than a no-brainer but perhaps not by much.

Romney also said Tuesday he was "disappointed" that Obama had politicized the bin Laden mission. In front of the Manhattan firehouse, he said:

"I think it's totally appropriate to the president to express to the American people the view that he has that he had an important role in taking out Osama bin Laden. I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the event that brought America together, which was the elimination of Osama bin Laden."

Romney uttered those words with no apparent irony in comments during a campaign photo op at a New York fire station that came to symbolize 9/11, not just because it lost many firefighters that day, but also served as Giuliani's command post after the nightmarish attacks on the World Trade Center towers.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Obama was demonstrating the advantages possessed only by an incumbent president seeking re-election, especially in the areas of national security and foreign policy.

As commander in chief, the president could visit with the troops ostensibly to thank them for their sacrifices and commend them for a job well done, both in killing bin Laden and training Afghanistan's security forces.

As the head of U.S. foreign policy, he could show his ability to reach a bilateral agreement with the leader of a national government, in this case Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. Part of the reason for the trip, according to a White House official, was for Obama and Karzai to sign a strategic partnership pact.

What's more, as the current occupant of the Oval Office, only Obama has at his disposal the tradition of prime-time addresses to the American people, like his Tuesday evening speech scheduled for 7:30 pm ET.

The speech was likely to be part reassurance to the nation that the U.S. was indeed winding down its role in Afghanistan.

The White House official acknowledged, however, the fortuitous timing of the president's visit, coming as it does, on the precise anniversary of bin Laden's death at American hands. The president is expected to mention the raid in his address.

For anyone who recalls the 2004 presidential election, the president's visit to Afghanistan and his campaign's focus on the bin Laden anniversary mark a sea change in the relative position of the parties on national security.

Eight years ago, it was President George W. Bush who rode the national security wave to re-election, raising doubts as to whether his 2004 Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, was sufficiently strong enough to protect a still traumatized nation from new plots being hatched by the then very-much-alive bin Laden.

It was a textbook Republican presidential campaign, with the GOP relying on its reputation with many voters as stronger than Democrats on national security issues.

This year, however, the tables have turned and not by a little. It's the Democrat in the White House who is challenging Republicans on what has been a traditional area of GOP strength. It's Obama's campaign that is raising questions about the national security tenacity of the presumptive Republican nominee.

And it is Obama who is showcasing himself as the commander in chief who gave the order that ended the bin Laden era and is unwinding the U.S. military from the second of two wars that have mostly lost popular support at home.

In short, the Obama campaign appears to be taking a page from the Karl Rove playbook. Rove, a top political strategist to Obama's immediate White House predecessor was a master at neutralizing his political opponents' supposed strengths by targeting attacks directly at them. There are echoes of that in the White House bin Laden strategy, at least as it seeks to wrest the national security high ground from Republicans.

But there's something else, as well. On Monday, Obama pulled no punches in showing that he intends to use Romney's comments on bin Laden in 2007 and now to reinforce the perception that Romney is a shape-shifter on issues.

In response to a question he was asked Monday at a joint appearance before journalists with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Obama said:

"As far as my personal role and what other folks would do, I'd just recommend that everybody take a look at people's previous statements in terms of whether they thought it was appropriate to go into Pakistan and take out bin Laden. I assume that people meant what they said when they said it. That's been at least my practice. I said that I'd go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did.

"If there are others who have said one thing and now suggest they'd do something else, then I'd go ahead and let them explain it."

On Tuesday in front of the New York City firehouse, Romney tried to do just that when he was asked about a comment he made in 2007:

"I think I said the same thing as vice president, not vice president then, but Joe Biden, that it was naive of the president to announce he would go into Pakistan. We always reserve the right to go anywhere to get Osama bin Laden.

"I said that very clearly in the response that I made. But many people believed, as I did, that it was naive on the part of the president, at that time the candidate, to say we would go into Pakistan. It was a very, if you will, fragile and flammable time in Pakistan. And I thought it was a mistake of him as a candidate for the presidency of the U.S. to announce that he would go in. I rather just to say, as I did, that we reserve the right to go where we feel it's appropriate to secure the interest of the United States of America. And certainly Osama bin Laden anywhere he could be found."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.

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