A triumph unexpected

Call it the soft strategy of low expectations.

The death of Osama bin Laden is an astounding tale of stunning risk, bravery, skill, perseverance and luck. It was shocking not only because many Americans had long given up hope of finding bin Laden but also because they had given up hope that President Obama would do anything right. 

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After taking office two years ago, Obama’s enormous popularity has shrunk drastically. Though it was predictable, his response was not. Unlike Candidate Obama, President Obama doesn’t prescribe much hope, project much confidence or promise better days. And though he knows that to lead successfully he must reassure the public with optimism, Obama has recently allowed Americans to conclude he couldn’t shoot straight on the economy, gas prices, a new war in Libya or the budget. 

Now, with an unexpected triumph, Obama has turned a page in American history at a moment when the country is deeply dispirited. With the death of bin Laden he has, for a brief time, united Americans who are profoundly divided. And in a time of record distrust of government, he has done something to remind Americans that somewhere in Washington, some of the time, some people are working hard to do the right thing. 

Few would have expected Obama to succeed in overseeing the hunting-down and killing of bin Laden. While critics in both parties have chided the president for an unwillingness to lead, he has surprised everyone with the ultimate act of leadership — a courageous decision for which he was willing to risk everything. A botched raid on a compound that didn’t actually house bin Laden, or a mission failure that allowed him to escape, would have marked the end of Obama’s presidency — and he knew it. 

Obama doesn’t talk tough, and he prefers to talk turkey behind closed doors. He is the un-Bush, the un-Cheney, the un-McCain, steering clear of estimations and conclusions, “mushroom cloud” rhetoric and “dead or alive” swagger. In the hours and days that have followed the momentous news of bin Laden’s killing, Obama has still resisted the temptation to speak in vengeful, aggressive tones. 

Often Obama has appeared indecisive or unconvincing, as when, in December of 2009, despite announcing without a tie on that “systemic failure” had nearly caused the Christmas Day bombing, he remained on vacation in Hawaii for several more days. By refusing to identify terrorists as militant radical Islamists or jihadists, and rejecting the term “global war on terror,” Obama has been criticized for weakening our hand by treating terrorist acts as events caused by isolated extremists. Yet Obama has proven a tough commander in chief in the terror fight, escalating drone attacks in Pakistan, tripling troops in Afghanistan and continuing a covert war in Yemen. Finally, killing bin Laden is a bold promise kept. In the 2008 campaign, despite criticism from both sides, Obama declared he would kill bin Laden even if it meant going into Pakistan to do it. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, told Larry King at the time that he wouldn’t do such a thing. “Larry, I’m not going to go there, and here’s why: because Pakistan is a sovereign nation,” he said.

The Obama administration now sees an ambitious opening in bin Laden’s death, an opportunity to push reconciliation negotiations with the Taliban as a step toward withdrawing from Afghanistan. It hopes the episode will also shame the Pakistanis into cooperating in good faith. But Obama cannot send the Joint Special Operations Command into Corporate America. And so bin Laden’s death can’t alter a fundamental dynamic. With enough new jobs Obama gets reelected — period. Without them, it’s a jump ball.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.