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It was just a firehouse chat with the guys of Engine 54 in lower Manhattan. But President Barack Obama delivered a message he hopes will also hit home with every American in this week of national catharsis: “You’re always going to have a president and an administration who’s got your back.”
In the denouement to the daring raid that brought down Osama bin Laden, the president has in effect been reintroduced to the nation.
While taking care to strike the right tone — trying to savor the success of the dramatic covert operation without appearing to gloat — Obama has offered himself as a decisive leader willing to take bold risks.
He’s gotten a bump in the polls that isn’t likely to last. But Americans may well come away with altered perceptions of a president whose strongest personal qualities in past polls have run to squishier traits like being a good communicator and friendly.
“It sheds a new light on him,” says pollster Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “What happened here may improve impressions that he is a strong and forceful leader, and that’s the enduring potential benefit.”
Obama’s understated victory lap — not that he would ever call it that — continues on Friday in Kentucky, where he’ll meet privately at Fort Campbell with some of the participants in the assault on bin Laden’s Pakistani hideaway and in public with U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan.
The president has been careful to shower credit and praise for the successful raid on the U.S. military and the nation’s intelligence and counterterrorism apparatus, and to frame this as a time for Americans to set aside politics and conjure the unity that the nation felt after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But it is inescapable that he is not only a president. He also is a candidate for re-election. And the successful raid can only do him good politically.
Contrast the competing images of Obama at New York’s ground zero on Thursday, meeting with first responders and families of those lost in the terror attacks, with those from Greenville, S.C., where the first debate of GOP presidential contenders played out Thursday night. The event attracted a field of relative unknowns lacking in foreign policy experience.
For now, even Obama’s political opponents are willing to give him his due.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a GOP presidential hopeful who declined to participate in the South Carolina debate, gave no-strings-attached credit to the president, the military and the intelligence community earlier in the week, calling it “a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has never shied from criticism of the Obama administration, also offered up credit to the president and his national security team. But he coupled it with a reminder that each president has built upon the work of his predecessor.
“We picked up on items that had been collected during the Clinton administration and worked those aggressively for eight years,” Cheney said in a TV interview after the raid. “We passed that on to the Obama administration. They picked it up and they’ve been working it.”
Fair or not, though, the credit for a blockbuster achievement like the demise of bin Laden goes to the sitting president.
With all that could have gone wrong, the risky mission could well have ended in unmitigated disaster. And, in that case, it would have been blame that was assigned to the sitting president.
Former President Jimmy Carter knows about that.
In 1980, Carter approved a plan to rescue the American hostages in Iran that ended in failure and left eight American servicemen dead. The botched mission was cited as one factor in Carter’s defeat when he ran for re-election.
In an interview with CNN, Carter recalled the failed rescue as a heartbreaking event and expressed hope that Obama would benefit from the successful hunt for bin Laden.
“I believe this has substantially enhanced his political standing — his reputation among people, particularly those that didn’t think he was a strong, competent person who could carry out a mission successfully,” the former president said.
Carter’s comments hinted at the president’s political vulnerability on questions of leadership.
In a January survey by Pew, Obama got his highest marks for personal traits such as good communicator (75 percent), warm and friendly (70 percent), and “stands up for what he believes in” (77 percent). By contrast, 54 percent of those surveyed saw him as “able to get things done” and 53 percent viewed him as a “strong leader.”
Polls also show that Obama’s personal approval ratings have suffered amid public impatience with the ongoing wars and dissatisfaction with the state of the economy.
Just a day before the bin Laden raid, Obama joked that his dismal poll numbers gave him “a really great self-help tool” for overcoming arrogance.
Early in his presidency, George W. Bush found his voice in the rubble of the twin towers at the World Trade Center, when he spoke to workers there through a bullhorn just days after the attacks and told them: “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
Bush’s approval ratings soared after 9/11. But as time passed, and the nation became bogged down in two unpopular wars, that support evaporated.
Well into his presidency, Obama is being re-evaluated in light of the bin Laden raid and his measured handling of what his spokesman calls “this significant and cathartic moment” for the nation.
The president talks of demonstrating to the world “who we are” by the way the U.S. has managed the raid and its aftermath.
Privately, Obama has to hope that people will come away with a better sense of who he is, too.
Nancy Benac has covered government and politics in Washington for more than 25 years.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press