He learned it early. Barack Obama is many things; among them, he is a tough and even ferocious political warrior. In his book Dreams from My Father, Obama vividly describes how his stepfather taught him to box in Indonesia, and how he himself still remembers the feel and smell of the Everlast gloves they wore as he endured punches until he found the strength and the skill to land blows of his own.
There is a kind of biographical line running between those dusty sparring matches a world away and the ad the Obama re-election campaign has released on the question of whether Mitt Romney would have the steel to order the 2011 operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The advertisement coincides with a flurry of media projects marking the anniversary of the killing, including a large-scale broadcast by NBC News’ Brian Williams that includes an interview with the President in the Situation Room.
Republicans are — forgive the cliché — shocked, shocked to discover that a presidential contender is “politicizing” an important national event. In this sense, “politicizing” might be best translated as “beating us up and we don’t have anything much to say to stop it.” The ad itself raises intriguing, substantive, legitimate questions — and the ferocious, sputtering Republican reaction is proof positive that they know it, or at least suspect it.
The ad’s theme is that Obama made a courageous and risky decision to send in the SEALs. Here the President has history and facts on his side: it was a courageous and risky call. Had the mission failed, had it been another Desert One, the very people now criticizing the President for trumpeting the achievement would be beginning their second year of excoriating Obama for weakness and fecklessness. And anyone weighing whether to re-elect the President should take the bin Laden operation into account: it is a powerful exhibit that Obama is a steely Commander in Chief — a critical test for many Americans.
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It’s true that by explicitly bringing Romney into the ad, the Obama campaign veers from the subtle to the unnecessarily heavy-handed. Yes, Romney said the things Obama says he said in the ad, like “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
Here, however, is the issue. Since at least 1968, Democrats have traditionally been more circumspect than their Republican foes in presidential politics. The lesson of the Clinton years and of Obama’s win of both the nomination and the general election in 2008 is that Democrats need to be as tough as JFK was (tough was a favorite Kennedy term). Is the bin Laden ad fair to Romney? No, not really. But politics is not for the faint of heart.
I take what President Clinton says in the ad seriously: “Look, he knew what would happen,” Clinton says of Obama. “Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there and it hadn’t been bin Laden? Suppose they had been captured or killed? The downside would have been horrible. But he reasoned, ‘I cannot in good conscience do nothing.’ He took the harder, more honorable path and the one that produced, in my opinion, the more honorable and best result.”
The way to put oneself in a position to take the harder, more honorable political path is to argue for one’s virtues in a vigorous way. That’s what Obama has done, and is doing. There’ll be more punches coming.
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