Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama speaks as House Speaker John Boehner (second from right) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi look on during a dinner of bipartisan committee chairmen and ranking members and their spouses in the East Room of the White House on Monday.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Every president benefits from moments of national unity. But none so much as Barack Obama, who ran for office promising to bridge partisan divides.
Now, as the nation celebrates and processes the stunning news that Osama bin Laden is dead, Obama has called on lawmakers to seize upon that unity.
Monday night, as he hosted a dinner for congressional leaders and their spouses, he compared the flag-waving crowds that gathered in front of the White House and at New York's ground zero to other events that had brought Americans together: the tragedy in Tucson, or the response to the deadly tornadoes in the South.
"Last night was one of those moments," Obama said, "and so tonight, it is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face."
The White House had a dramatic success story to tell, and all day long it shared details of the daring operation by Navy SEALs on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. The president's top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, who had been personally involved in the hunt for bin Laden for 15 years, said the 40-minute operation was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods in the lives of the people assembled in the White House situation room Sunday.
The man who created the al-Qaida terrorist network that killed 3,000 people in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is dead.
"The minutes passed like days, and the president was very concerned about the security of our personnel. That was what was on his mind throughout, and we wanted to make sure that we were able to get through this and accomplish the mission," Brennan said.
In photographs released by the White House, the president looks tense and focused as he and his top aides monitor the operation in real time. Brennan explained how intelligence analysts had carefully followed every thread over many years until they had built a body of circumstantial evidence that bin Laden was in Abbottabad.
"Still, though, there was nothing that confirmed that bin Laden was at that compound, and therefore the president had to evaluate the strength of that information, and then made what I believe was one of the most gustiest calls of any president in recent memory," Brennan said.
Obama took a big risk. He could have bombed the compound. That would have kept American soldiers out of harm's way but might have produced a pile of rubble instead of an identifiable body. Instead, he chose a helicopter raid in which a lot of things could have gone wrong.
In the process — as the White House pointed out Monday — he made good on his repeated promise to act unilaterally if he had actionable intelligence. As a candidate in July 2008, he said, "We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights."
And that is exactly what happened Sunday.
George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University, said he thinks the "image of the president as a leader" has been strengthened.
"Because of the success of this decision and this operation, it shows him as strong and competent and decisive," Edwards said. "He can claim a major national security victory ... at a time when he's been sharply criticized for lack of decisiveness — for example, for the early stages of the Libya operation, and he was dismissed as a military amateur by many conservatives."
The operation that killed the country's No. 1 terrorist target earned Obama praise from some unusual sources. Former Vice President Dick Cheney congratulated him. So did former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Even business tycoon Donald Trump — who recently revived "birther" charges that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. — gave him credit. And although many Republicans on Capitol Hill said Obama was just continuing the fight against al-Qaida begun by President George W. Bush, Edwards said there is no doubt this will be a boost for Obama at home — but probably won't be a game changer.
"That gives him a little more leverage in dealing with Republicans in Congress. But they're not going to fundamentally change their views on the health care reform ... or the deficit," Edwards said.
"The issues that he has to deal with on the domestic front are still polarized. And so we shouldn't expect that night is going to turn into day here."
Maybe not, but from this day on, his Republican opponents will always have to deal with the new and enduring fact that Barack Obama is the president who got Osama bin Laden.