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Bin Laden Kill Shatters Another GOP Obama Myth

GOP strategists believed that the soft-on-terrorism smear would work even better against Obama than other Democrats. That's over now.
 
 
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During the 2008 presidential election campaign, the GOP plan of attack on then-candidate Barack Obama was simple: pound him relentlessly as soft on terrorism and antagonistic toward the military. GOP presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., and especially George W. Bush in his 2004 reelection fight against Massachusetts Senator John Kerry used this ploy masterfully against their Democratic opponents.

The GOP strategists believed that the soft-on-terrorism smear would work even better against Obama. He was a liberal Democrat, untested in foreign policy matters; he had made conciliatory remarks about Islam; he was a staunch opponent of the Iraq war, and unstated, but very much a part of the thinking, he was African-American. This supposedly made him vulnerable to the widely held, borderline racist suspicions that blacks are unpatriotic. The smear almost worked. Polls consistently showed that despite the mountain of political baggage carried by GOP presidential contender John McCain, his running mate Sarah Palin, and the rest of the Republican Party—not to mention the sky-high voter disgust with Bush’s domestic and foreign policy bumbles—the terrorism issue still had enough resonance to keep McCain competitive.

But Obama knew the history of how the GOP used the terrorism ploy to discredit Democrats, and he moved quickly to counter their attacks. He threatened preemptive strikes against Pakistan for harboring terrorists and vowed to wage fierce war in Afghanistan against terrorism and Al Qaeda. During the campaign, he promised to launch preemptive strikes against terrorists wherever they were, including search-and-destroy missions to ferret out bin Laden. He even quipped that he'd put his own life on the line to stop another 9/11.

To the GOP’s shock -- and to the ire of many progressive and liberal Democrats -- Obama was as good as his word. He refused to soften any of the provisions of the Patriot Act, promptly issued a shoot-to-kill order against Somali pirates who had seized American hostages, stepped up the drone attacks on the Taliban in Pakistan, and approved the massive expansion of troops, bases, and spending on the Afghan war. But most importantly, he issued tough (and secret) orders to the CIA to continue to do everything to destroy and disrupt Al Qaeda and to take out the one man that Americans most wanted dead: Osama bin Laden. Obama’s order to the CIA and military counter-terror teams hunting bin Laden was clear—Do not capture, but kill.

The sudden, stunning success of that mission has forced GOP leaders to scramble. The cheering crowds outside the White House following the announcement that bin Laden was dead, the glowing praise from much of the public, and the congratulations from world leaders drove home the frightening political implications for the Republicans, just as the 2012 campaign is gearing up. Obama had done the one thing that Bush, despite his bluster and tough talk, could not do— take out America’s Public Enemy Number One, the world’s preeminent symbol of terror. In one fell, and spectacular, swoop, Obama has rudely shattered the myth that’s been a key weapon in the GOP arsenal for decades: that a Democratic president was incapable of waging a tough and effective war on terrorism.

Confronted with the political game-changer of the bin Laden killing, it is amusing to see the tortured gyrations that conservatives and GOP officials are going through to heap credit on Bush, the military, special ops teams, the CIA, the 9/11 victims’ families, and even the general public, while giving either Al Qaeda’s leader.

The bin Laden action comes at the worst possible time for the GOP. Obama’s approval numbers had been sagging, and more Americans continued to voice displeasure over the direction the country was heading. This was the one bright spot for Republicans, especially coming on the heels of other polls that showed the GOP base was bored, disheartened, and even contemptuous of the crop of would-be Republican candidates. At the same time, a majority of voters were repelled at the clownish showboating of purported GOP contenders Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

In his televised address announcing bin Laden’s death, Obama wisely did not revel in this victory. He portrayed it solely as a grim but necessary action in the war on terrorism. Bagging bin Laden was purely a national security priority. Just as smartly, the president took pains to assure that the attack on Al Qaeda’s leader was not an attack on Islam. Both messages were necessary, and both have left the GOP even more hapless and reeling for a way to recover politically, now that another of their cherished myths about Obama has been shattered.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).
 
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