Monday, May 2, 2011

Well it proves that President Obama is not all talk -- He got the job done with action this weekend.

First Thoughts: A game-changer
From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg

*** A game-changer: The 9/11 terrorist attacks fundamentally transformed American politics. They ensured that the 2004 presidential election would be fought over national security; they resulted in Democrats picking John Kerry as their nominee and Republicans picking New York City as their convention site; and they ultimately led to Bush's re-election, albeit in a closely contested race. While it's doubtful that Osama bin Laden's death will have as long of a political impact -- especially in this fast-changing, short-term memory media landscape -- it will surely shape the contours of next year's presidential race. For starters, it will hover over the first Republican debate set for this Thursday, even if it's not a direct question. It also will highlight the GOP field's foreign-policy and national-security credentials, or their lack thereof. And it amounts to Barack Obama's top achievement as president. Last night changes everything (for now), but we also know how quickly it can dissipate.

*** Does it change the nation's psyche? Indeed, the size of the impact is unknown, and it will play out in the weeks and months ahead, especially with an unemployment rate near 9% and with gasoline prices hitting $4 a gallon. But it could serve to change the nation's psyche. Put simply, the United States has been in a national funk over the past four years. Obama's presidential victory in 2008 boosted spirits (particularly Democratic ones), despite the sinking economy. And the GOP's midterm wins in 2010 boosted Republican and Tea Party spirits. Yet nothing has united Democrats, Republicans, independents, and everyone else -- until now. As President Obama remarked last night, "Let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people." There was never going to be a V-E Day after 9/11, but this is as close as the country will get to one.

*** Does it change the nation's policy in Afghanistan? Yet there is something we do know for sure: Bin Laden's death will impact the debate about the war in Afghanistan. "This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda," Obama said when he announced the U.S. troop increase to Afghanistan. "It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak." The beginning of the troop withdrawal is already set for this summer, but calls for a more intense and rapid draw-down will only increase. Of course, there will be a serious -- and political -- debate about what the future U.S. policy toward Afghanistan (and Pakistan, too) should be, especially given that it's hard to believe Pakistan somehow overlooked bin Laden living in an affluent military veteran suburb of Islamabad. In fact, because of Pakistan's questionable reliability as an ally, it complicates the picture with Afghanistan and doesn't make "declaring victory and coming home" such a cut and dried decision. Still, make no mistake: Last night's news changes things.

*** It does make everything else seem so small: Bin Laden's death also makes the past two week's worth of political conversation look so small by comparison. Donald Trump. The president's birth certificate. Friday's GOP cattle call in New Hampshire. Even the upcoming battle to raise the nation's debt ceiling. As for Trump, if he wasn't already embarrassed by the jokes at his expense on Saturday night, he has to be embarrassed about all of his recent charges ("Where is Obama's birth certificate?" "Where are his college grades?" "Who wrote his book?") And as for the more substantive debate over the debt ceiling, last night's news will have an impact as well. Everything looks so small by comparison, at least for now. One last point: This probably guarantees that Mitt Romney -- who has been on the fence about attending -- doesn't show up at Thursday's GOP presidential debate.

*** Naïve? Ironically, Bin Laden's death -- in Pakistan -- recalls one of Obama's supposed "lowest" moments during the '08 presidential campaign, in Aug. 2007. In an Aug. 1 speech, per NBC's John Bailey, Obama delivered these words: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistan] President Musharraf will not act, we will." At a debate two weeks later, Obama's Democratic rivals used those remarks to paint Obama as either naïve or inexperienced. Said Hillary Clinton: "Pakistan is on a knife's edge. It is easily, unfortunately, a target for the jihadists. And, therefore, you've got to be very careful about what it is you say with respect to Pakistan." Said Chris Dodd: "The only person that separates us from a jihadist government in Pakistan with nuclear weapons is President Musharraf. And, therefore, I thought it was irresponsible to engage in that kind of a suggestion here. That's dangerous. Words mean something in campaigns." And said Edwards: "Musharraf is not a wonderful leader, but he provides some stability in Pakistan. And there is a great risk, if he's overthrown, about a radical government taking over."

*** "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and we've exhausted all other options, we should take him out": Here was Obama's answer to the criticism: "Well, you know, to prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the [Iowa] state fair." He went on to say, "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and we've exhausted all other options, we should take him out before he plans to kill another 3,000 Americans. I think that's common sense." Indeed, Bin Laden's death is a tacit rebuke of all those who questioned Obama's toughness on foreign policy and bats down the criticism from the right that Obama's rhetoric is too soft (he doesn't say "Global War on Terror!"). Obama supporters will say it proves it's not tough talk that matters -- but rather action.

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