What the world learned about Obama from bin Laden raid

Obama took office amid questions about whether he could be a credible commander in chief – and showed personal fortitude and command capability in the bin Laden raid. How long will glow last?

Pete Souza/The White House/AP
President Obama listened May 1 during a White House meeting on the mission against Osama bin Laden.

Americans – and the world – will never see President Obama in quite the same way.

Mr. Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois when he was elected, took office in January 2009 surrounded by questions.

Could the young president, with little executive or foreign-policy experience, be a credible commander in chief? Could he build a team and make decisions? Could he handle the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call?

IN PICTURES: Obama at ground zero

The successful operation against Osama bin Laden, eight months in the making, has laid some of those doubts to rest. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney, who once accused Obama of "dithering" over Afghanistan policy, congratulated the president and his national security team on a job well done.

Suddenly, Obama's deliberate style and trademark calm are being hailed as assets. His relaxed, joke-filled performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner the night before the highly risky commando raid on Mr. bin Laden's compound is now part of the legend. Ditto the nine holes of golf Obama shot the morning of the assault.

He can pull the trigger

And he showed he can pull the trigger when the time comes. The fact that he chose the riskier option – a ground raid by Navy SEALs over a drone airstrike – showed courage, especially in light of reports that only half his national security team favored the ground operation.

"He's got the guts of a gambler, for sure, and the ability to sustain cool and poise with a hundred balls in the air," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin.

Mr. Buchanan also credits Obama with assembling a national security team that by all appearances works well together, in contrast with the squabbling that marred his predecessor's first term.

The one blemish for the Obama administration has been its changing account of the operation, though that can be attributed to the "fog of war."

A bump in his approval rating

Predictably, Obama got a bump in his job approval, putting him above 50 percent for the first time in months. But that is likely to evaporate, just as the first President Bush discovered after the successful Gulf War shot his job approval to 90 percent – only to be followed by a reelection loss the next year amid high unemployment.

Obama is still in negative territory with the public on his handling of the economy. And when Nov. 6, 2012, rolls around, it will still be unemployment, economic growth, and gasoline prices that determine whether he gets four more years.

Still, the elimination of the chief sponsor of 9/11 is an achievement that no one can take away from Obama – perhaps the signal achievement of his presidency to date.

"Even though political time runs very quickly and people move on, it will be something people remember in the next election," says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. "I don't think this will be forgotten."

Obama, it is often said, has had few breaks during his presidency. He inherited two wars and an economy on the verge of collapse.

But the war on terror has been an exception: The Christmas Day 2009 underwear bomber did not succeed. Neither did the Times Square car bomb on May 1, 2010.

Now add the nearly flawless commando operation against bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a year later.

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