Thursday, May 12, 2011
Might the killing of Osama bin Laden create a once-in-a-presidency opportunity for Barack Obama: the chance to redefine himself by letting his progressive twin out of the closet and back into the political mainstream?
Obama has famously disappointed many of the progressives who voted for him in 2008 thinking he represented a new turn in American politics. Instead, by keeping President George W. Bush’s Federal Reserve chairman and his Secretary of Defense, and by escalating the Afghan war and backtracking on raising taxes for the wealthy, Obama abandoned his progressive roots and became, in the words of right-wing columnist David Brooks, “center-right” in his politics.
Brooks issued his label a few days before Obama broke the news Sunday night about the killing of bin Laden. Instantly, Obama’s presidency gained the potential for a second act. With the head of al-Qaeda dead, could not the United States draw down its forces in Afghanistan? The methods that resulted in bin Laden’s death – identifying, tracking and then killing an adversary with forces brought from a distance – underscores the folly of the “boots on the ground” approach so dangerously and expensively on display in Afghanistan. Having disastrously escalated the war in Afghanistan – now widely recognized as a counterproductive, costly quagmire – might Obama now be able to admit his mistake and shut down this war, with the scalp of bin Laden in his hip pocket?
To start with, the task of reducing defense spending – an urgent priority if federal budget-cutting is to gain any credibility with progressives – is now the job of outgoing CIA Director Leon Panetta, the mastermind, apparently, of the Navy SEAL “kill action” in northern Pakistan and Obama’s choice to replace outgoing Pentagon chief Robert Gates. Panetta must do far more than Gates ever contemplated in curtailing excessive military spending. Gates approved only minuscule cuts, but independent auditors have found massive waste in Pentagon weapons systems. Plus, wages and benefits to soldiers in uniform have ballooned over the past 10 years.
With bin Laden dead and a Democratic administration taking credit, won’t Obama have the clout to roll back defense spending?
Obama’s new clout should also extend to the domestic realm, where he has infuriated many of his most fervent supporters by caving into one Republican demand after another and failing to take the politically popular step of raising taxes on wealthy Americans in order to both reduce the deficit and narrow the massive inequality that defines our country today. Even worse, along with David Axelrod, his political strategist, he has blamed progressives for criticizing him, while saying nary an unkind word about right-wingers who seem to question his very being. With bin Laden dead, might the Obama progressives now come into the daylight?
Bin Laden’s death may not be the turning point in Obama’s presidency that we hope. As president, Obama’s instinctive caution and conservatism win out most of the time. Yet he’s also facing peril: going down in history solely as the man who caught bin Laden. Obama’s second term is his to lose.
The Republican field of challengers, already weak and disorganized, could grow weaker still in the wake of Obama’s singular achievement in international security. With bin Laden’s death, Obama’s moment to make peace has arrived. He can start by making peace with his disappointed supporters, who can offer him so much to renew and redirect America.
G. PASCAL ZACHARY teaches journalism at Stanford University. He is the author of The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy.