Obama, Osama, and the Problem With Defining Moments

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As pundits rush to apply historical significance to big events, from the Challenger disaster to slaying Osama, real meaning can be trivialized

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There's a rich coincidence to that intimate photo of President Obama and his national security team monitoring the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound -- and a lesson about a conceit of political pundits.

Not only does it recall the 1986 photo of President Reagan and top aides as they viewed a replay of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion -- and, as with Team Obama, one doesn't know what they're watching at that moment --but it's taken by the same person, my former colleague Pete Souza.

On a second tour as official White House photographer, ever-acute Pete probably caught the future's iconic image of the event. As for the event's actual ramifications, even on domestic politics in the short-term, we don't know.

"Can you imagine the same-day stories on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima or the moon landing, discussing the political implications for the president at the next election?"

Oh, yes, "defining moment" was the instant moniker from some analysts; in particular, declaring a "defining moment" for the Obama presidency. That line of half-baked argument came replete with the claim that a tactical weapon has been wrested from Republicans, namely the ability to bash Obama and Democrats as "soft" on national security during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Initial polling suffices as a yellow cautionary light on analytical bravado, with a modest "bump" in the president's personal approval ratings offset somewhat by the unavoidably overriding concern, an economy in which rising corporate profits offer mean nothing to most Americans.

Eric Adelstein, a Chicago-based national consultant to Democrats, justifiably has two problems with the "defining moment" narrative parroted by many, especially in Washington.

First, there is our felt need to not just report and dissect every major event but to also place each in a supposedly appropriate historical context. "Today's rush to judgment, to keep sore, to weigh things on the scale of political outcomes trivializes everything," he said, only a few days after the embarrassing hyperbole of the "Wedding of the Century."

"Can you imagine the same-day stories on the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or the moon landing, discussing the political implications for the president at the next election?" he asked.

But, of course, that's what we now do, with occasional cable commentators, like myself, falling prey to the same affliction in a media culture where it's generally more prized to be provocative, and thus presumably "interesting," than right. Herald an oil spill as "Obama's Katrina" and save those sober, nuanced, long-winded commentaries for C-Span, I guess.

Second, as pro basketball and hockey playoffs are underway, it's good to be reminded that, just as with sports, there tend to be two seasons in presidential politics. There's the run-up to a campaign and, then, the election campaign itself.

"Anyone who thinks they know what will define an election light years in media time from now is delusional," said Adelstein.

By coincidence, Wednesday's front pages of his and Obama's hometown newspapers and TV outlets were less interested in bin Laden than in Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose being named the NBA's Most Valuable Player the day before. In addition, the town was anxious that the Bulls, with the best regular season record, were looking distinctly fragile in their second, more important, season, the playoffs.

The fragmented media landscape and rise of the internet accelerate our child-like attention spans and the difficulty of generating interest, no less consensus, on anything, especially public policy. Stunning deficits and underfunded pension liabilities hover over urban America like a soon-to-explode Hindenburg airship. But good luck to the elected official trying to generate a sense of civic urgency.

And just like the claims of Obama being a Muslim, or being born in a foreign land, the quantities of misinformation about bin Laden's death will spread, raise doubts and make it more problematic to tag his capture and death a "defining moment."

"One might go a bit further and say that TV has reduced what might been defining and teachable moments into mini-dramas, more scripted than spontaneous, and drowning in commentary," said historian Richard Norton Smith. "The next election may be less about defining moments -- historically significant as they may be -- than defining circumstances, like every moment a motorist pulls up the gas pump and is reminded of -- what?"

Yup. I did a double-take Tuesday as I filled up at $4.59 a gallon. Even in the president's hometown, the latest "defining moment" may dissipate as rapidly as gas fumes. I got back into the car, turned on sports radio and listened to palaver about the Bulls.

Image credit: National Archives and Records Administration/Reuters

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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