Obama 1, Osama 0

Weighing risk and opportunity, the President moves with deliberation, patience and force

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Pete Souza / White House

White House Situation Room, Sunday, May 1. The "minutes passed like days"

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The splendid success of the bin Laden operation should clarify the precise way that this President goes about his work. It also provides an insight into the reasons for Obama's ill-concealed frustration with his critics: the metabolism of policy runs much more slowly than the metabolism of the media. Policy, especially foreign policy, does not lend itself to spiffy one-size-fits-all doctrines. The same President can decide to take a risky shot at killing Osama bin Laden and choose not to take out Muammar Gaddafi; he can decide to make a discreet humanitarian intervention in Benghazi, at the behest of all the countries in the region, while allowing blood to flow in Syria. Not all of these decisions will prove correct over time — every President makes mistakes — but the overall pattern of judgments can be assessed only with sufficient hindsight. It is difficult for a President and his team to keep things in perspective when the media pulse has reached tuning-fork speed and now includes not just CNN and Fox News but also al-Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter. It is particularly difficult for a President whose every decision is questioned by an opposition whose most prominent spokespeople are willing to toy with despicable rumors about his nationality and religious background.

"My fellow Americans," the President opened at the White House correspondents' dinner on the night before bin Laden was killed, and the audience roared with laughter. His decimation of Donald Trump, who sat in the audience, was particularly brutal. He marveled at Trump's decision to "fire" Gary Busey instead of Meat Loaf on his Celebrity Apprentice show. "These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir." The audience didn't know it at the time, but two nights earlier Obama had been kept up trying to decide whether to launch the SEAL team against bin Laden or take the stealth-bomber route. A President lives at the intersection of historic decisions like that one and a media environment in which Donald Trump can make outlandish claims about the President's birthplace — and shoot to the top of Republican presidential polls. The distance between those two worlds is mind-bending.

The Obama presidency has been plagued by complexities: How do you conduct a presidency without bumper stickers? How can you explain counterintuitive policies like the need to spend money to soften the blow of a killer recession, even if it expands the federal deficit? How do you convey the policy tightrope that has to be walked as longtime despotic allies in the Arab world are toppled, or not, by revolutions without leaders? How can you explain the delicate task of managing relations with China, when all the public wants to know is why the U.S. seems to be falling behind economically?

The one slogan Obama has attempted — WINNING THE FUTURE — seems pretty lame and lamer still when he repeats it incessantly. Why isn't he focused on winning the present? There have been times — his speech after the Tucson, Ariz., shootings, his bin Laden announcement — when the President has tapped directly into the heart of American sensibility and sentiment. More often, he seems a stranger, unable to fix on the momentary needs of the public, unwilling to indulge the instantaneous needs of the media. His strategy is to hope that the accumulated wisdom of his decisionmaking will count for more when 2012 rolls around than the pyrotechnics that pass for political discourse in this jittery, nano-wired age. He will mediate congressional disputes rather than make grand policy proposals that others can shoot down. He will eschew dramatic gestures overseas — unless he has carefully considered every facet, as he did in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He will play the grownup because he is a grownup. It will be interesting to see if that works.

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