Almost exactly 20 years ago, an American president once ridiculed as a “wimp” stood triumphant, having vanquished a Middle Eastern villain. Crowds flocked to Lower Manhattan, their hands caressing incomprehensibly oversized American flags that waved patriotic good feelings over the country and lifted the president’s approval rating to 88 per cent. Two years later, he was out of a job.
Few of the students who crowded the streets around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue after the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death were alive in 1991. But those inside the White House can remember, and in their post-champagne sobering the cautionary tale of George HW Bush, celebrated commander-in-chief of the first Persian Gulf War turned one-term president, will likely be recalled with great clarity.
Bush lost his re-election to Bill Clinton not because Americans changed their opinion about his Gulf War success but because urgent domestic concerns pushed Iraq and the liberation of Kuwait out of their minds. Then, as now, a lingering recession carried the day, and the fact that the president seemed short on solutions — and often appeared detached from the challenges of those out of work — was the issue that mattered most by the time voters went to the polls in November 1992.
Voters don’t have short memories as much as they tend to reward past success only when it is a useful indicator of future performance. In 2004, Bush’s son benefited from having toppled Saddam Hussein because it attested to a tough-nosed foreign policy at a time when Americans were worried about their security. Terrorism is today ever more an abstraction to voters — it’s been a decade since the last large-scale attack within the United States — and public opinion had started to rally around the idea that US commitment to fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan had become a waste of lives and resources.
Obama’s unexcitable style contributed to this shift in national temperament. Without Bush’s constant invocation of Al Qaida as a frightening tactic, the so-called “war on terror” was resigned in the American mind to a sort of permanent, but non-urgent responsibility of government, like tackling inflation or monitoring the water supply for lead. Until Sunday, it was easy to go months without reading bin Laden’s name appearing in an American newspaper or hearing it spoken on cable news.
The way that Obama coolly presided over the seemingly flawless bin Laden operation will make it very difficult for any Republican to attack him as a weak steward of national security, as a few of the potential 2012 candidates have already tried to do. But none of those candidates thought they would beat Obama on the issue, just use it as a way to build a critique of his leadership — not tough enough to take on the challenges posed by a recession-era presidency.
As far as 2012 is concerned, the best news for Democrats is that the opposition still hasn’t found its Clinton. The test for Obama will be explaining what killing Osama in his first term should tell voters about what he’ll do about jobs or gas prices in his second.