A year after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama’s team is launching another precision operation: a full-scale public relations offensive aimed at using the bin Laden mission to boost the president’s reelection bid.
During a speech in New York Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden delivered an even sharper jab at Romney.
“Thanks to President Obama, bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive. You have to ask yourself, if Gov. Romney had been president, could he have used the same slogan — in reverse?” Biden said, pointing to comments Romney made in 2008 that it was “not worth moving heaven and earth … just to catch one person.”
Obama granted NBC a rare interview in the Situation Room Thursday to mark the raid’s anniversary. And the White House is dispatching Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan to the Sunday TV talk shows to tout the administration’s anti-terrorism record.
It’s an all-out push by Team Obama to find the ideal bin Laden balance: harnessing maximum political advantage from the anniversary while minimizing any backlash over politicizing the historic event.
Romney’s campaign immediately accused the Obama camp of exploiting bin Laden’s death for political gain.
“The killing of Osama bin Laden was a momentous day for all Americans and the world, and Gov. Romney congratulated the military, our intelligence agencies, and the president,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Friday. “It’s now sad to see the Obama campaign seek to use an event that unified our country to once again divide us, in order to try to distract voters’ attention from the failures of his administration.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) blasted Obama for engaging in “the height of hypocrisy” and a “pathetic political act of self-congratulation.”
“Shame on Barack Obama for diminishing the memory of September 11th and the killing of Osama bin Laden by turning it into a cheap political attack ad,” McCain said in a statement Friday evening. “This is the same president who once criticized Hillary Clinton for invoking bin Laden ‘to score political points.’”
Democratic strategists dismissed the GOP criticism.
“It was the defining moment of the first term. To think people aren’t going to talk about it, Republicans are really naive,” said Chris Lehane, a former spokesman for Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). “It’s going to be very difficult for the Republican Party, [whose] entire campaign in 2004 was predicated on issues like this, complaining somehow about all of this. … Any number of presidents, Democrat and Republican, did not succeed in getting bin Laden, and there’s one who did.”
At times, Obama and his allies have expressed the kind of swagger that President George W. Bush was often faulted for.
Asked at a December news conference about Romney’s claims that Obama was pursuing a strategy of “appeasement,” the president let loose.
“Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22-out-of-30 top Al Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement. Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that,” Obama retorted.
Biden told a fundraiser in New Jersey last month that the mission was not just the most daring of the century or, say, in all of U.S. history, but in half a millennium.
“You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan,” Biden said.
An Obama campaign spokesman declined to comment on claims that Obama is inappropriately politicizing the national security issue, but White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday defended the administration’s approach.
“I think the way that we’ve handled it … represents exactly the balance you need to strike,” Carney said.
Principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest added Friday that the flurry of activity is largely the product of the media’s desire to observe the one-year mark since the raid. “There certainly is interest around the one-year anniversary,” Earnest said.
A former press secretary to Bush, Ari Fleischer, complained that Obama’s political use of the raid is seen as fair game, while in 2004 Bush was excoriated for simply showing Ground Zero in a campaign ad. Obama’s new Web video shows New York City firefighters celebrating the death of bin Laden.
“There really is a double standard. … President Bush could barely use the number 9/11 in a sentence without somebody accusing him of politicizing 9/11,” Fleischer said, adding that he thinks it is “perfectly appropriate for both presidents” to discuss such events in their campaigns.
But a political and advertising consultant for Bush, Mark McKinnon, said he thinks subtlety might serve the Obama camp best.
“Best handled with sensitivity and nuance,” McKinnon told POLITICO. “No need to hit it on the nose. Everyone knows. But gentle reminders that Obama ‘has helped keep America safe’ will get the message across without dancing in the end zone.”
While many analysts see the bin Laden publicity campaign as a no-brainer, the move does carry several risks.
One downside is that Obama could be seen as upstaging the Navy SEALs and other operatives who carried out the raid. While Obama may have risked his political life in approving the operation, he wasn’t knocking down doors, piloting a crashing helicopter or braving possible explosive booby-traps in the bin Laden compound.
Republicans are already arguing that Obama is giving short shrift to the real heroes in Abbottabad.
“I want you to run two [sound] bites. One is what Barack Obama said after he caught and we killed bin Laden, and what George Bush says after we caught Saddam Hussein. They’re so different,” GOP consultant Alex Castellanos said on CNN Thursday. “One of them is ‘I … I … I did this’ and the other one is ‘We … we … we … and those brave men in the SEALs.’ It’s just a very different approach, and I think I sense some arrogance.”
In his speech the night bin Laden was killed, Obama did portray himself as a key part of the narrative.
“Shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against Al Qaeda,” Obama said that night. “I was briefed on a possible lead. … I met repeatedly with my national security team. … Finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”
But in that speech and later ones, Obama has often paid tribute to the U.S. commandos.
“We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country,” Obama said right after the raid, praising the military and CIA personnel for “tireless and heroic” work to track down bin Laden.
He also traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky., days after the raid, to meet with the Navy SEALs involved — and to make another highly publicized speech about the dramatic, “Mission Impossible” assault he ordered.
“The president has spoken frequently about how the lion’s share of the credit for the success of that mission goes to our men and women in uniform, to the men and women in the intelligence community,” Earnest said Friday.
Another danger for Obama: His campaign’s focus on the raid could fuel criticism that disclosing so many details about the operation will jeopardize the ability of Navy SEALs to carry out future raids.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) complained last year that the administration was leaking details for political gain, including by cooperating with a Hollywood film originally set to hit theaters just before the election.
Carney dismissed the complaints, saying he hoped congressional critics “would have more important topics to discuss than a movie.”
However, in December, the Pentagon’s office of inspector general announced it was launching an investigation into allegations that the filmmakers received access to classified information. A spokesman said Friday the probe is ongoing. The CIA also said it was revising its procedures to funnel contacts with the entertainment industry through a single point of contact at the agency.
“They just have to be very careful in what they say so as not to give away methods of operation,” King said Friday in a statement to POLITICO.
Even some administration officials have said that the White House, in its haste to tout the successful mission, spilled too many details into the public domain.
“Frankly, a week ago Sunday, in the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told troops soon after the raid. “That all fell apart on Monday — the next day.”
Highlighting bin Laden’s death also could feed into questions many Americans have about why tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and why military and Central Intelligence Agency drone campaigns are reportedly being expanded elsewhere in the world.
“I don’t think the danger is people will think it’s wrong for the administration to go after bin Laden,” Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First said. “The question is: Now that you’ve killed bin Laden and decimated Al Qaeda, why are we still at war?”
While a judge ruled Thursday that the administration need not make public photos or videos of bin Laden’s death, administration officials are considering the release of new information about anti-terrorism efforts. The White House has declassified many of the papers seized from bin Laden’s hideout and is planning to put out them in the near future.
Obama administration allies contend the GOP’s effort to minimize Obama’s role is off-base and self-serving.
“The guys who executed the mission are heroes, but the guy who gave the order is the guy who gave the order,” former State Department official and Democratic campaign strategist Jonathan Prince said. “If the president gave the order and it turned out to be a debacle, he would get the blame. If the order is successful, he deserves the credit. You can’t have it both ways.”