2 May 2011

Ed Pilkington
guardian.co.uk, Monday 2 May 2011 10.52 BST

How sweet it was on Saturday night for Barack Obama to be able to take to the stage at the White House correspondents dinner in Washington and mock his nemesis Donald Trump for having embraced the birther conspiracy that the president scotched only last week with the production of his birth certificate.

That was nothing compared with the sweetness of the moment that came 24 hours later when Obama took to the national stage, announcing from the East Wing of the White House that he had successfully ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden.

That address, delivered sombrely but with evident relish by Obama, will almost certainly dash any remaining hopes on Trump's part that his wife Melania will be choosing new curtains for the White House in 2013. It may also sweep away the aspirations of several other potential Republican candidates hoping to limit Obama to one term.

Rarely has an incumbent president been handed such a gift in the runup to an election year. As the huge crowd that assembled outside the White House testified, "getting Osama" is grounds for national jubilation, free from party affiliation.

Obama was at pains in his announcement to emphasise the personal role he had played as commander-in-chief. He underlined that he had ordered the CIA to make the killing or capture of Bin Laden its top priority, that he had met repeatedly with the national security team when the al-Qaida leader's whereabouts had become known, and that it was "at my direction" that the operation to assassinate him was launched.

The accent on his firmness in the face of the terrorist threat is unlikely, in the case of Bin Laden, to displease even the most liberal of Democratic voters who have grown increasingly despondent about the president's refusal to break with the central features of George Bush's "war on terror", such as the maintenance of the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. It is likely to play very well with independent voters upon whom his re-election depends.

In his wording, it was clear that Obama was seeking to put to rest the comparison with Jimmy Carter, the last Democrat to be thrown out of the White House after just one term, that has dogged his presidency.

Obama stressed that none of the US special forces had been harmed in the operation to kill Bin Laden, an allusion to Carter's disastrous attempt in 1980 to rescue the Iranian hostages that cost American lives.

Obama will be hoping that the feelgood fallout from the news of Bin Laden's death will lead to a bounce in his popularity ratings that have remained worryingly low for many months. In the latest Rasmussen poll, 49% of voters said they disapproved of his leadership, 37% strongly, although that was before this weekend's events in Pakistan.

On the other hand, the polls show consistently that the top priority for voters is no longer national security – that has waned as a preoccupation almost 10 years after 9/11 – but the economy.

With petrol prices at a historic high, and unemployment still at 9.2%, Obama will know that even the death of Bin Laden will not secure him a second term unless the economy improves.

At least, for now, he has the pleasure of watching his opponents squirm. The announcement saw Republican 2012 hopefuls reaching for the superlatives, including Mitt Romney who called the news "a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere".

The gloves won't stay off for long, but for now Obama can enjoy being on top.


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