At 11:35 p.m., standing at a podium in the East Room of the White House, the president uttered these words: "Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that has killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children."
I expect that most people will see this clip dozens, if not hundreds of times in the coming weeks. It is already being canonized on cable television and can't help but have an impact on the direction of Obama's presidency. As any number of cable analysts are already pointing out, it will certainly rank among Obama's signature first-term achievements.
There is a very short list of similar such moments. One obvious example that springs to mind is George W. Bush's impromptu declaration from atop a pile of rubble to Ground Zero rescue workers just after 9/11: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"
In the days and weeks that followed, it became clear that that was a defining moment for Bush. His approval rating hit 90 percent. That episode might loom larger today had Bush not gone on to provide some less proud moments. Case in point, yesterday was the eighth anniversary of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, which did as much as anything to diminish his legacy, and came to stand as a sort of bookend to his statement at Ground Zero.
While Obama's announcement of bin Laden's death will go down in history, it's impossible to know quite what effect it will have beyond that. But it does provide its own bookend, and a much a happier one, to Obama's promise, in a presidential debate with John McCain on Oct. 7, 2008, that if elected president he would hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden.