Osama’s Death is Obama’s Lifeline

May 04, 2011
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American politics is such that bin Laden’s death will help Obama secure his win at the next presidential elections.

It was around 2 or 3 in the morning, near the Pentagon, when I was suddenly awakened by the shouts of the neighbours. Now that’s unusual because Americans are normally very careful about not disturbing their neighbours. Outside the window, a band of youths were cheering, ready to drive their car out. I switched on the TV only to find out that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Fox, CNN… it was all over the news, as the stations reported “live” how crowds were celebrating on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, at New York’s Times Square and at the scene of the 9/11 attacks.


The speeches of the two U.S. presidents were also continuously broadcast. Former President George W. Bush was speaking wearily on camera: “No matter what, by all means, we will capture him (bin Laden), or kill him; I don’t know where he is, but we will definitely catch him.” The other was Obama’s statement on bin Laden’s death: “I can now announce to the American people and the world…”

That was how the news bulletins went. In addition to reporting from Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed, the stations showed just how the crowds were cheering. Men and women were waving the American flag, jumping, shouting and singing. If one didn’t know better, one would have thought that the United States had won the soccer World Cup! It was the first time I had seen the Americans celebrate so joyously in many years – the scene was similar to when China had won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics.

Three years ago when I was in Washington, reporting on the U.S. elections, there were Americans who speculated that the Republicans had a secret weapon: if Bush Jr. managed to announce the capture of bin Laden right before the polls, then McCain surely would win. Perhaps that was the hope of many Republicans, but finally they were disappointed. Instead, Bush Jr. left the White House in defeat, carrying the twin burdens of the global financial crisis and “we have not caught bin Laden”.

For Americans, Osama’s death is like a tonic – it allows them to believe that the U.S. still has a bright future.

Now Obama has done it. On TV, his demeanour was calm, his choice of words measured, as he detailed bin Laden’s evils over the past 20 years. Not only was he careful about addressing the Islamic world, the U.S. anti-terrorism forces and the victims of 9/11, he also took care of Bush’s feelings, with acknowledgement and thanks. That such a perfect speech was drafted just two or three hours after bin Laden’s death, one has to admire the mastery of the presidential speechwriters. Or perhaps, it’s just that the White House has always had a draft speech ready in the event of bin Laden’s death.

But that’s not important. For Americans, whether it’s President Obama or the ordinary people, the death of bin Laden is like a tonic – it allows them to believe that, no matter how much their country has weakened and the rise of emerging economies can no longer be contained, no matter how dim their prospects are in the face of the current financial crisis, the United States still has a bright future. As Obama himself said in the statement, “But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.” Such words are familiar, for it is a tone that many presidents have used to encourage Americans in the past, during World War II, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, as well as the war on terror.

Now, if al-Qaeda attacks the United States in retaliation for bin Laden’s death, what will happen to Obama? Wouldn’t that be even better for him? After all, 9/11 did help push Bush’s popularity ratings to as high as 90% -- that would be precisely why deep down inside, Obama would not fear another terrorist attack on the United States. Such is American politics.


This post was originally published on 国际那点事儿 in May 2011.