Could Bin Laden's Killing Give Obama the Political Muscle to Take on Conservatives?

Might the killing of Osama bin Laden create a once-in-a-presidency opportunity for Barack Obama: the chance to redefine himself by letting his progressive twin out of the closet and back into the political mainstream?

Obama has famously disappointed many of the progressives who voted for him in 2008 thinking he represented a new turn in American politics. Instead, by keeping President George W. Bush’s Federal Reserve chairman and his Secretary of Defense, and by escalating the Afghan war and backtracking on raising taxes for the wealthy, Obama abandoned his progressive roots and became, in the words of right-wing columnist David Brooks, “center-right” in his politics.

Brooks issued his label a few days before Obama broke the news last Sunday night about the killing of bin Laden. Instantly, Obama’s presidency gained the potential for a second act. With the head of al-Qaeda dead, could not the United States draw down its forces in Afghanistan? The methods that resulted in Bin Laden’s death—identifying, tracking and then killing an adversary with forces brought from a distance—underscores the folly of the “boots on the ground” approach so dangerously and expensively on display in Afghanistan. Having disastrously escalated the war in Afghanistan—now widely recognized as a counterproductive, costly quagmire—might Obama now be able to admit his mistake and shut down this war, with the scalp of Bin Laden in his hip pocket?

To start with, the task of reducing defense spending—an urgent priority if federal budget-cutting is to gain any credibility with progressives—is now the job of outgoing CIA Director Leon Panetta, the mastermind, apparently, of last Sunday’s Navy SEAL “kill action” in northern Pakistan and Obama’s choice to replace outgoing Pentagon chief Robert Gates. Panetta must do far more than Gates ever contemplated in curtailing excessive military spending. Gates approved only minuscule cuts, but independent auditors have found massive waste in Pentagon weapons systems. Plus, wages and benefits to soldiers in uniform have ballooned over the past 10 years. (The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the average Active Duty service member received a compensation package worth a whopping $99,000.)

With Bin Ladin dead and a Democratic administration taking credit for the kill, won’t Obama have the clout to roll back defense spending significantly?

Obama’s new clout should also extend to the domestic realm, where he has infuriated many of his most fervent supporters by caving into one Republican demand after another and failing to take the politically popular step of raising taxes on wealthy Americans in order to both reduce the deficit and narrow the massive inequality that defines our country today. Obama has repeatedly sacrificed progressive ideals in order to curry favor with conservatives. Even worse, along with David Axelrod, his political strategist, he has blamed progressives for criticizing him, while saying nary an unkind word about right-wingers who seem to question his very being. With Bin Laden dead, might the Obama progressives have been waiting for now come into the daylight?

To be sure, Bin Laden’s death may not be the turning point in Obama’s presidency that we hope. As president, Obama’s instinctive caution and conservatism seem to win out most of the time. Yet he’s also facing an unexpected peril: that he will go down in history solely as the man who caught bin Laden. Obama’s second term is now his to lose. The Republican field of challenges, already weak and disorganized, could grow weaker still in the wake of Obama’s singular achievement in international security.

Yet the president faces a new burden, the challenge of not becoming known to history chiefly as the scourge of al-Qaeda. For his own narrow self-interest, Obama may try to bring his progressive twin into the national conversation, if only to avoid a fate that, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize early in his presidency, he never imagined: to be remembered as a “war president,” the label George W. Bush loved to embrace.

With Bin Laden’s death, Obama’s moment to make peace has arrived. He can start by making peace with his disappointed supporters, who can offer him so much to renew and redirect America.


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