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Taking out bin Laden is a major moment for President Obama

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama not only authorized the raid against Osama bin Laden's compound, but he also made it infinitely riskier.

Insisting on DNA proof that the 9/11 mastermind had been killed, Obama scratched a plan to bomb the hideout in Pakistan, officials said, setting up the gutsy raid using helicopters and U.S. Navy special operations forces.

It could have been disastrous, on the scale of former President Jimmy Carter's failed attempt in 1980 to rescue American hostages in Iran. But as the nation celebrated Monday, there was a growing sense that Obama had confronted one of the enduring criticisms against him, showing decisive leadership as commander in chief.

"Obviously, this was an action in the national interest without political thought," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "But it will be impossible for any Republican to run against this president as weak on defense, as weak on terrorism."

Obama should get a political boost from the killing of a terrorist who eluded two presidents and hurt perceptions of the United States as a worldwide power.

Most presidents see their approval ratings climb after a major event unifying the nation. President George W. Bush's popularity soared in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and remained high for months. President George H.W. Bush's approval rating approached the 90s during the first Gulf War.

But the elder Bush saw that plummet as the economy faltered, and he lost his bid for a second term. The fiscal outlook under Obama has been worse and experts agree it will define his re-election campaign.

Still, the nearly decade-long struggle to find bin Laden made the United States appear weak and his demise represents a major moment for Obama, who promised during the 2008 campaign to bring bin Laden to justice.

"The failure to capture him created doubts in our ability abroad and self-doubt at home," said Steve Clemons, a foreign policy expert who publishes a political blog, the Washington Note. "Checking off that box gives Obama enormous credibility."

The White House on Monday released a time line portraying the president as hands-on from the start of the operation in March. In all, he convened five meetings of the National Security Council, culminating in his decision to go ahead with the plan Friday — a day that presented a fresh crisis at home, the aftermath of deadly tornadoes across the South.

• • •

The bin Laden news late Sunday led to various reactions from Obama's critics.

Tim Pawlenty, a likely GOP candidate for president and vocal critic of Obama on national security, credited the president along with the military, as did many other top-name party figures.

Most Republicans — as Obama had done in announcing the news — hailed Bush for beginning the pursuit of bin Laden after 9/11.

Still others did not mention the current president. "I congratulate our intelligence and military communities on this monumental operation," said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who campaigned last fall against many of Obama's policies. (On Monday, Rubio did congratulate Obama and his team "for a job well done.")

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, another fierce critic of the president, praised Obama in a statement, but in an interview he was more circumspect. Asked if it solidified Obama's role as commander in chief, he said, "I don't know. You have to commend him for putting the effort into it and I'm glad it happened."

Since he emerged onto the national scene, Obama has been dogged by questions about his national security qualifications.

"We've seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security," Hillary Rodham Clinton, then his rival for the Democratic nomination, said in a February 2008 speech. "We can't let that happen again."

Republican 2012 contenders have amplified the concern and tried to capitalize on a perception that Obama is indecisive.

During a speech earlier this year, Mitt Romney said "an uncertain world has been made more dangerous by the lack of a clear direction."

Newt Gingrich, another potential candidate, said of Obama, "you have a spectator in chief, not a commander in chief."

Both men lauded Obama's efforts while Gingrich said the victory was only part of a longer war. "Radical Islamism did not start with bin Laden and it will not end with his death," he said.

Republican strategists conceded the dynamic had changed.

"All of the scripts and fundraising appeals on Obama on losing the war on terror are probably going in the trash bin today,'' Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, told the National Journal. "You've got to pay your respects for this big win and let the president do his victory lap. Having said that, foreign policy can change overnight.''

Indeed, Obama faces broader questions about his foreign policy strategy. Debate will intensify this summer over his decision to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

"This is an important accomplishment," said GOP pollster David Winston. "It sets up, 'Where does he go from here?' "

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Michael C. Bender and Louis Jacobson contributed to this report.

Taking out bin Laden is a major moment for President Obama 05/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2011 11:20pm]
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