President Obama is receiving the well-deserved gratitude of the nation for success in taking out Osama bin Laden. The nation applauds, with less exaltation than exhaling, as if we were holding our breath for the last decade without knowing it.
The president’s judgment and steeliness earn praise across the country. Independent pollster Andrew Kohut says he may reap a long term dividend for being a strong leader. Democratic pollster Peter Hart believes the president captured a larger sense, to a "country that has been down… that there is a way of coming back."
Republicans who have been scorning the president as weak and ineffectual in foreign policy had little choice but to applaud. Hell even Dick Cheney and Donald Trump offered congratulations.
Not surprisingly, many pundits suggested the triumph boosted and perhaps cemented the president’s reelection next year. The Borowitz Report caught the spirit, with the headline" 2012 Election Canceled; President buoyed by 100% approval rating."
The Washington Post’s veteran reporter Dan Balz offered words of caution. George Bush the First was at 90% in the polls in 1991 after the stunning rout of Saddam Hussein’s forces in the first Iraq war, yet lost re-election in 1992, garnering only 37% of the vote. George the Second saw his popularity soar after September 11, with the successful invasion of Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein himself in December 2003, but barely eked out re-election in 2004.
After taking a much merited victory lap, the president should take a hard look at this history, for it likely foretells what he faces over the next months.
First, the dispatch of Osama bin Laden will harden popular opposition to the war in Afghanistan. As much as anything, hunting Osama served as a cover for an unpopular effort to build a nation in Afghanistan. After stocking his administration with a new generation of counter-insurgency mavens, the president allowed himself to double down on the effort to defeat the Taliban, and to try to transform a corrupt and incompetent regime in Afghanistan into something capable of ruling an ungovernable country.
Public patience with this mission was declining while Osama was still alive, and for good reason. But now that he is dead, the cover is blown. Few Americans will think it makes sense to squander lives and resources in the effort to prop up the corrupted regime of Hamid Karzai, who regularly threatens to join the enemy.
Anti-war activists largely gave Obama a pass on Afghanistan, when he coupled the "surge" with a promise to begin withdrawing this July. With bin Laden dead and another hard summer of fighting in Afghanistan, that pass is not likely to be extended as America’s longest war heads into its second decade.
Second, the death of Osama bin Laden will free Americans to focus even more completely on the troubles we have at home. When George the First went from 90% popularity in 1991 to ignominious defeat in 1992, the reason, made famous by the sign James Carville had hung in the Clinton war room, was "the economy, stupid." Only the 1992 economy was much better than the current one — enjoying faster growth and lower unemployment after a far shallower recession.
Here for the president, reality is sobering. In his State of the Union address, Obama declared we were "poised for progress," noting that the stock market had come roaring back, corporate profits were up and jobs were being created.
But in the first quarter of this year, growth plummeted to only 1.8% on an annualized basis. Some dismissed this as an aberration, blaming it on the weather. But it is more likely to be an augury of what is to come. Over 20 million people are still in need of full-time work. Wages aren’t keeping up. Home values are falling, with over 11 million homes with mortgages under water. Gas prices are rising. Not surprisingly, consumer confidence has tanked. The Federal Reserve is about to end its "qualitative easing" which pumped money into the markets. Lay-offs, furloughs and cutbacks are rising as federal, state and local governments cut spending. The trade deficit is getting worse, costing jobs.
And Obama is now trapped in an endless alley fight with congressional Republicans over less — about how much to cut and what to cut. The Republican position — cut Medicare and Medicaid to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy — is so preposterous that Democrats will win that debate. But Republican candidates for the president aren’t mired in it. Around March, as Republicans finally begin sorting out the adults from the clowns in their presidential field, the serious candidates will start asking "Where are the jobs?" They’ll indict Obama for failing to produce, speaking to voters who — with Osama bin Laden buried at sea — will be entirely focused on and sensibly unhappy about "the economy, stupid."
Time to Act
With the tea party zealots dominating the Republican Congress, the policy pie is pretty much baked. No new initiatives for the Congress are likely to survive the House, unless the president decides to repeal taxes on millionaires — and that won’t do much for the economy.
The White House will be tempted to use the Osama moment to claim their laurels. The president has turned an economy in free fall around, kept his promise to draw down in Iraq and to refocus on the terrorists who attacked us on 9-11. He can run on a record of accomplishment and good judgment.
However tempting, that would be a mistake. The best hope for Obama and the country is for the president to use this moment when his judgment and leadership are being praised to focus Americans on the challenges we face at home. To do so, he’ll have to change course dramatically.
In July, he faces his own deadline on beginning the draw-down from Afghanistan. The military will undoubtedly push to sustain the mission, arguing that progress is being made, and we shouldn’t squander the momentum that comes with Osama’s death.
Instead, the president could use the credibility he has gained in the dispatch of Osama to accelerate our departure from Afghanistan. Declare victory and get out. Announce that we will continue to be vigilant and continue to pursue terrorists across the world, but it is time for us to focus our resources and attention here at home.
Then lead rather than lag the faltering economy. Use this moment to show Americans how circumstances have changed. Heavy lifting is still needed to get the economy moving and to put people back to work. Show clearly that the president is focused, like a laser, on the struggles that Americans are facing.
Could Obama use this moment to call an end to the game playing, and push for a clean vote on lifting the debt ceiling? He could line up bankers shoulder to shoulder to urge Congress to act now, not dither. The House is not likely to agree, but at least the president would make it clear to the country how dangerous and irresponsible this is. And he’s likely to have a better chance to dictate terms of any deal.
Given the faltering recovery, why not call on Congress to enact programs that will help put people to work? Given the deficit hysteria, borrowing for jobs programs is a non starter. But the president would benefit from pushing an agenda on jobs and fighting for it. Why not tax the corporations sitting on trillions in profits and use that money to save the jobs of teachers, cops and fire fighters? Why not call l for a surcharge on millionaires to fund a green corps, hiring young people to retrofit homes and public buildings to lower energy use? Or demand action on a plan to require banks to renegotiate mortgages to avoid foreclosures and save neighborhoods, or empower bankruptcy courts to do so.
And why wait to roll out an agenda on making it in America once more?
The president could combine his own investment agenda (on education, innovation and infrastructure) with a push for buy America provisions on government procurement, and a trade agenda that announces the commitment of this country for both more trade and balanced trade. Tell the Chinese that unless we reach agreement on more balanced trade, we will treat their exports exactly as they treat ours.
None of this is likely to pass unless the economy tanks. But by laying it out and fighting for it now, the president will demonstrate that he is focused on the economy, that he has an agenda to get it going, and that he is being blocked by the Republican zealots who seem bizarrely intent on returning to the same Bush policies that drove us over the cliff (the Bush tax cuts, the Bush energy policy, the Bush trade policy, the Bush regulatory policy).
Needless to say, the president’s fund-raisers won’t be pleased. They’ve set out to raise nearly $1 billion for the re-election campaign. With Wall Street’s hedge fund managers already miffed and multinationals pushing for a return to traditional trade policy, these initiatives aren’t likely to help fill the coffers.
Armchair advisers are a dime a dozen, and no White House — particularly this one — is receptive to critical advice. So it will take popular pressure — against the war and for action on the economy — to change the balance in Washington. The August recess should be used by activists to let the Congress hear that voters think they aren’t listening. That might concentrate attention both in the White House and the Congress about the need to act.
Obama is headed into a campaign where he will be burdened with responsibility for an economy scarred by high unemployment, stagnant wages, and slow growth — at best. Voters will thank the president for taking out Osama bin Laden, but they will vote for the candidate they think most likely to fix the economy. So for what it is worth: Take a bow, Mr. President. Get a well deserved night’s sleep. Run a victory lap. And then act boldly to make yourself that candidate.