Democrats put on combat boots

Welcome to Bizarro Washington, where Republicans are trusted to lead on the economy and President Obama is the man with the big stick who killed Osama bin Laden.

For decades, the roles of the two major parties were clearly defined by voters: Republicans were strong on national security, and Democrats, the mommy party, were the anti-war crowd whose strength was the economy.

Now that Obama can claim the scalp of bin Laden, voters, especially those under 30 years old, might be forced to reevaluate those traditional views.

Democratic strategists are divided over how much perceptions will change because of bin Laden’s death — a remarkable turn of events for a president who just days ago was trying to convince a segment of the American population that he was not born in Kenya.

One Democratic strategist said the narrative began to slowly change during the 2006 midterms, when opposition to former President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq culminated with a “thumping” of Republicans.

During that election, Rahm Emanuel, then the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), put a premium on recruiting Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to run in centrist to conservative districts.

In November of that year, Democrats swept into power. The day after the election, Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

That marked a dramatic departure from 2004, when Democrats unsuccessfully tried to force voters to change their minds on national security by nominating Vietnam veteran John Kerry, whose campaign was mortally wounded by his anti-war past and nuanced approach to voting or not voting for the war in Iraq. 

In 2008, Obama roared onto the stage with his early opposition to the Iraq war, but running against former prisoner of war John McCain, the president was hardly considered the hawkish national-security candidate. 

When the election turned on the global economic meltdown, voters reverted to their conventional view of the parties, putting their faith in the Democratic candidate to bring the economy back from the brink.

“Now, while the GOP was trying to regain that narrative, much like they are trying to regain the narrative that they are fiscally responsible after plunging us in to major debt, this most certainly changes the dynamic,” the strategist said. “It will always say in the history books that under President Obama’s leadership and direction, Osama bin Laden was finally captured and killed.”

The White House has been working overtime to ensure that’s what voters take away from this chapter in American history.

In announcing bin Laden’s death, Obama said the strike was at “my direction.”

Presidential aides like counterterrorism chief John Brennan praised Obama for making “the gutsiest decision of any president in recent memory.” Almost immediately, the White House pointed out that Obama sought to refocus the hunt for bin Laden, doing so in a directive to CIA Director Leon Panetta in a June 2009 memo.

Republicans have tried since Sunday night to argue that Bush should get credit for bin Laden’s death, but Obama is the commander in chief who got the job done. And he did so after running a campaign that blasted Bush for taking his eye off the terrorist mastermind to redirect resources to Iraq.

The anti-war group no longer strikes fear in the hearts of would-be Democratic candidates who claim national security as a strength, and the anti-war wing of the party has turned on a president it once viewed as an ally. 

Still, other Democrats are skeptical that this one victory, no matter how immense, is enough to force voters to reappraise the roles of the parties.

“Obama’s actions remove any image of himself as a soft president, but it will be hard for him to remove the image of the mommy party for Democrats,” strategist Jamal Simmons said. “There are too many Democrats who don’t like any military action.”

Simmons noted that former President Clinton “was the most fiscally responsible president of the last 40 years, but the Democratic Party’s image as a group of spenders didn’t change permanently.”

“Obama has done the country, himself and Democrats who embrace a muscular national-security policy a great service,” Simmons said. “But it will take a lot more Democrats following that path before his image rubs off on the party.”

In the time since bin Laden was shot in the face by a Navy SEAL, the role reversals have been almost comical: Obama’s victory lap mixed with Republicans desperately trying to turn the narrative back to the economy.

And at this point, it’s a safe bet the 2012 election will hinge on the economy despite Obama’s trophy, and voters will decide next year which party they trust more when it comes to dollars and cents. 

The college kids who were chanting, “USA” outside the White House gates Sunday night were children when planes slammed into the Pentagon and Twin Towers. In their short lifetimes, it was the Republican president who let the bad guy get away, and the Democrat who put a bullet in the bogeyman.

And today’s hopers and changers are tomorrow’s NASCAR dads and security moms. 

So while Obama might not have changed the roles for the major parties this year or next, he very well might have planted a seed that could reap electoral benefits for the mommy party for years to come.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.

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