Killing Osama bin Laden is a strange way to start a presidential campaign season, but that's where we are.
Now, bin Laden wasn't taken out for partisan political reasons. Nor was his death ultimately the result of a partisan policy. With only the most cartoonish exceptions imaginable (a President Kucinich, perhaps), it's inconceivable that any Republican or Democratic president would have passed up the opportunity to kill the world's most wanted man. Killing murderers like bin Laden is simply what U.S. presidents do.
Hence, in a single week, the president put to rest two famous conspiracy theories. The release of his birth certificate delivered a fatal blow to birtherism, figuratively speaking. Meanwhile, the fatal blow delivered to bin Laden, literally speaking, laid to rest the far more insidious idea that the U.S. government was "in on" 9/11. (Though I have no doubt there are those who believe Osama bin Laden was a mere patsy, taken out before he could tell the real story, just as there are those who are convinced that Obama's birth certificate is really an elaborate forgery. Toxic conspiracy theories never completely go away, they simply have an ever-decaying half-life.)
But Obama also put to rest other fanciful notions about the president's motives. The man who allegedly inherited his father's "anti-colonial" passions ordered the killing of the foremost anti-colonial terrorist in the world. And — however ineptly — Obama orchestrated a NATO-led bombing campaign against Africa's most prominent self-proclaimed anti-colonial leader, Moammar Qaddafi.
These and similar actions effectively exonerate him from a host of irrelevant and unhealthy charges. But they do nothing to acquit him from the relevant ones: that he is a too-liberal American-born president who has failed to make good on myriad promises or to be a capable steward of the economy. Nor has he, potential bin Laden "bounces" notwithstanding, succeeded at putting America on what the pollsters glibly call "the right track."
It's no surprise that news of bin Ladin's tardy departure for hotter climes has sparked an enormous riot of punditry about whether the president will be able to ride the news to re-election in 2012. Legendary political analyst Barbara Walters opined: "I would hate now to be a Republican candidate thinking of running."
And I agree with her. I, too, would hate for Barbara Walters to be a Republican candidate thinking of running. But as for the rest of the field, Obama's triumph over bin Laden no more rules out Republican success than George H. W. Bush's victory in Kuwait prohibited Democratic success in 1992. After winning the first American war since Vietnam, Bush had an approval rating of 89 percent yet was still undone by a hostile media, a mild recession, and his own complacency.
The analogy can be — and is already — overdone. We are technically in a recovery, albeit a tepid one. Obama has the media in his corner and no Ross Perot–type figure nipping at his heels. (Donald Trump may play such a role, but he would, like Perot, steal more votes from the Republicans than from the Democrats. Already the fever swamps speculate that Trump-the-Birther is an Obama plant. He's not. He's simply an ego with hair.).
The 1992 analogy falls apart in other ways as well. Bush was challenged in the primaries. To date, Obama's party may not be as enthusiastic as the White House would like, but there are no signs of revolt either, despite an increasingly long list of disappointments and betrayals from Obama.
But there are ways in which 1992 is instructive. First, the challenger won by "focusing like a laser" on the economy. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?) It is already looking next to impossible for the White House to coast on a resurgent economy the way Reagan did in 1984. Things will likely improve, but don't expect a lot of "Morning in America" ads from the Democrats.
More important, 1992 demonstrated the folly of complacency. The first President Bush wasn't the only one who thought he was a shoe-in for re-election. So did a great many top-tier Democrats who opted not to run against the "unbeatable" incumbent. Bill Clinton saw an opportunity, and he was hungrier for victory than his opponent was. This election will likely go to the hungrier candidate who can convince Americans he or she can deliver better days.
Getting rid of bin Laden is a good start. But there's an irony here. Obama has treated foreign policy (at least until his Libyan adventure) as something to keep on the back burner so he could concentrate on domestic politics. By killing Osama bin Laden, he got what he wished for. And that may just be the beginning of his problems.
Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI