Obama gets the edge he desperately needed

United States President Barack Obama lost no time in making political capital from Osama bin Laden’s death scheduling a high-profile appearance on Thursday at New York’s Ground Zero to chat to members of the public, fire fighters and others about 9/11 and what the al-Qaeda leader’s death means to them. Already the country was overflowing with pride and relief that Bin Laden had finally been located and retribution taken.

The event completely overshadowed what would normally have been a major political event, the first Republican debate in the 2012 race for the White House. Only a handful of candidates, some of them relatively obscure—Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson and Herman Cain—will be gathered for the televised debate, organised by the broadcaster Fox, in Greenville, South Carolina.

What will Obama do with the political capital that has accrued from the killing of Bin Laden? He could keep it in the bank until the middle of the campaign next year, but that is quite far away.
It is more likely he will use it in the months ahead in struggles with the Republicans.

Having tackled—with varying degrees of success—healthcare reform, Iraq, the financial crisis and now Bin Laden, there are still major gaps in the promises he made on the 2008 election trail. The biggest is his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre within a year of becoming president. He appears to have lost that debate with congress.

Even the praise he is receiving from his Republican adversaries over the Bin Laden operation is unlikely to persuade members to approve money to transfer the Guantanamo detainees to a prison on the mainland or allow civilian trials in New York or anywhere else in the US.

The most likely place he can use the credit is in his struggle with Republicans over the budget, in particular in defence spending, with Obama seeking huge cuts in the Pentagon budget and Republicans equally determined to protect pet military projects that provide employment in their home states.

With the war in Iraq winding down and the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan scheduled to begin in July Obama can argue that removal of the head of al-Qaeda provides yet another reason to slash hundreds of billions from the military budget.

Tom Mann, a specialist in politics at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said: “That is the right question: not whether Obama’s almost certain boost in job approval will affect his re-election prospects, but how he uses his new political capital to avoid a debt ceiling crisis and shapes the budget debate in the weeks and months ahead.”

Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, agreed: “He ought to spend the political credit. Wise presidents spend and unwise presidents try to bank it. You can’t bank it. What should he spend it on? He should spend it on the debt deficit debate to the extent he can. The Republicans have anticipated this. They say: ‘We’re thrilled by Osama bin Laden, but it has nothing to do with debt.’ He can’t spend it in backroom deals with Republicans but he can with the public [on the debt issue].”

Sabato said: “The only long-lasting effect of this on the campaign in 2012 is that when the Republican candidate says ‘Obama, you have weakened our national defence, Obama will say ‘Osama’. The public will say ‘Yes that is true’. It gives him protection.”

Obama held a bipartisan dinner at the White House on Monday night for congressional leaders and appealed for Republicans and Democrats to put aside their differences and regain the “same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11”.

But he acknowledged that was unrealistic. “I know that the unity we felt on 9/11 has frayed a little bit over the years and I have no illusions about the difficulties of the debates that we’ll have to be engaged in, in the weeks and months to come,” he said.

What Bin Laden’s death has done is to have given the president an edge in these coming battles.—Guardian News & Media 2011

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