US President Barack Obama’s late-night Sunday announcement from the White House that Osama bin Laden had been killed delivered not only a long-awaited prize to the US, but also a significant victory for Obama, whose foreign policy has been the subject of persistent criticism by his rivals.
In his presidential campaign four years ago, Obama bluntly declared: “We will kill Bin Laden.”
However, as time passed, bin Laden’s name had gradually fallen from presidential speeches and from political discourse, raising concern from critics that his administration was not sufficiently focused on the war on terror.
In delivering the news from the East Room, as jubilant crowds gathered outside the White House waving US flags and cheering in celebration, Obama did not address his critics or gloat about his trophy. He instead used the moment to remember the victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and to issue a fresh call to the nation for unity.
“Let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on Sept. 11. I know that it has, at times, frayed,” Obama said. “We are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”
The development is almost certainly one of the most significant and defining moments yet in his presidency. It allows Obama to claim the biggest national security victory in a decade — something that eluded former US president George W. Bush for nearly eight years — and allows him to instantly burnish his foreign policy credentials at a time when he has been questioned on his Middle East policy.
Obama called Bush on Sunday evening to inform him that bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Obama spoke at the White House, Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying: “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
The killing of bin Laden comes as the Obama administration faces key questions about its strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The president revealed few details of the operation in his address Sunday evening, but aides said he would address it more in the coming days, perhaps through another national address or in interviews.
For Obama, the news came as he faces one of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, largely because of domestic concerns over high gas prices and the rising debt burden. It remains an open question what lasting effect bin Laden’s death will have on how Obama is seen by the American people, but it gives him an unmistakable advantage on national security heading into next year’s presidential campaign.
“I don’t care about the politics,” said Ari Fleischer, who was the White House press secretary during Bush’s first term. “This is great news for our country.”
The reaction was swift on Sunday evening, with Democrats and Republicans alike hailing the moment. Some of Obama’s rivals praised him by name, including Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota.
“I want to congratulate America’s armed forces and President Obama for a job well done,” said Pawlenty, a frequent critic of the president’s policies. “Let history show that the perseverance of the US military and the American people never wavered.”
It remained unlikely, though, that the national security victory would significantly rewrite the political dynamic facing the president. The presidential election is still likely to turn in large part on the economy, with unemployment and gas prices holding significant sway.
The president also made clear in his remarks at the White House on Sunday evening that the US still faces serious national security threats.
“His death does not mark the end of our effort,” Obama said. “There’s no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
However, as Obama delivered his remarks, and the crowds continued to gather outside the White House, there was little question that his presidency had forever been changed by snaring bin Laden. The search for him has played out over Obama’s entire maturation as a national political figure in the last decade.
“Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” Obama said.