President Obama could always count on the killing of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, who died one year ago, to bolster the argument he deserves reelection. But as he and his political allies have demonstrated this past week, they aren't content to use the terrorist's death only to build up Obama — they want to use it to tear down Mitt Romney.
Obama's campaign has transformed bin Laden from an implicit highlight of the president's own record into a political cudgel used to clobber his Republican opponent. Three of the country's most prominent Democrats — Vice President Joe Biden, former President Clinton, and Obama himself — have questioned whether Romney would have the courage to send special forces into Pakistan to hunt down bin Laden.
Even in an election that hinges on the economy, the charge is a land mine for Romney should it stick with the public. In effect, Obama is arguing the nation would have been robbed of one its great moments of triumph if Romney had been president — a potentially crippling blow against a man trying to prove he has the chops to be commander-in-chief. But making bin Laden's death a more overt issue on the campaign trail also poses significant risk for Obama, who is now vulnerable to criticism he's showing poor taste for dragging a transcendent accomplishment down into the mud of partisan politics.
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In either case, Obama made it clear on Monday he's not backing off. After Biden openly questioned whether Romney would have gone after bin Laden and Clinton cut a campaign ad praising the courage of Obama's decision, the president made his case personally during a press conference that Romney wouldn't have ordered the strike. Obama was referring to a comment Romney made in 2007, when he suggested it wasn't worth "moving heaven and earth" to go after the terrorist.
"As far as my personal role and what other folks would do, I'd just recommend that everybody take a look at people's previous statements in terms of whether they thought it was appropriate to go into Pakistan and take out bin Laden," said Obama, whose campaign released a seven-minute video that prominently featured the bin Laden killing. "I assume that people meant what they said when they said it. That's been at least my practice. I said that I'd go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did."
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"If there are others who have said one thing and now suggest they'd do something else, then I'd go ahead and let them explain it," the president added.
Rather than rise above the fray and let his actions speak for themselves, the comment is a signal Obama is intent on preserving the direct contrast between his record and what he says Romney would, or in this case wouldn't, have done. In other words, the president is keeping the pressure on his rival.
"The Obama campaign certainly has to be careful in not overdoing it, but highlighting a success of the president is what political reelection campaigns are about," said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist.
Republicans like Sen. John McCain of Arizona have argued that Obama already has overdone it. It's unseemly for the commander-in-chief to take political advantage, and criticize Romney, over a triumphant moment that should extend beyond partisan politics, they argue.
"This is one of the reasons President Obama has become one of the most divisive presidents in American history," Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, said on Sunday on Meet the Press. "He took something that was a unifying event for all Americans — an event that Governor Romney congratulated him and the military and the intelligence analysts in our government for completing the mission in terms of killing Osama bin Laden — and he's managed to turn it into a divisive partisan political attack."
Gillespie added that it was Obama's suggestion that Romney wouldn't have ordered the raid into Pakistan that makes Obama's use of the issue unseemly. And, indicative of how much bin Laden's death has now emerged as a political football, they're charging that moving ahead with the raid wasn't impressive.
"Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order," Romney said during a campaign stop on Monday in New Hampshire, referencing the onetime Democratic president many Republicans assail as the epitome of a weak leader. During the Iran hostage crisis, Carter ordered a U.S. military rescue operation on April 24, 1980, which resulted in a failed mission, the deaths of eight American servicemen and one Iranian civilian, and the destruction of two aircraft. The hostages were released shortly after Carter's successor, President Reagan, took office.
The Romney campaign has reason to fret about its candidate's foreign-policy credentials in the eyes of the public. A mid-April poll from CNN reported that when voters were asked which candidate could better handle the responsibilities as commander in chief, 52 percent picked Obama. Just 36 percent picked the former Massachusetts governor.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.