If there is one attribute that the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign has brought us in great measure, aside from sweater vests and former pizza magnates with delusions of grandeur, it is false outrage. Whether it's Democrats up in arms over Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus comparing the "war on women" to a "war on caterpillars" or multimillionaire Ann Romney becoming a troubadour for stay-at-home moms against the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse from Hilary Rosen, the Romney and Obama camps have practically been getting the vapors at the first sight of political blood this campaign cycle.
This week's latest indignation: President Barack Obama taking political credit for killing Osama bin Laden and then accusing his opponent, Mitt Romney, of insufficient rigor in wanting to kill America's most wanted terrorist. To be sure, there's nothing really new about Obama raising this issue. His State of the Union address could have been renamed, "I'm Barack Obama and I Killed Osama bin Laden." The 17-minute documentary film put out this year by the Obama campaign offered as its centerpiece a recounting of the now-legendary raid. Now, the latest barrage comes in a recent 90-second ad (narrated by Bill Clinton), aimed to coincide with the May 2 anniversary of bin Laden's death, that not only praises the president's decision-making but wonders whether Romney would have taken the same difficult path.
Running on the legacy of a corpse that lies at the bottom of the Arabian Sea has pretty clearly been the Obama campaign's mode for quite some time -- and why not? Obama took his share of hits in the 2008 campaign (including from his now vice president and secretary of state) for saying that he would prioritize killing OBL. But as president he stuck to his guns. Romney, during the same presidential cycle, said it wasn't worth "moving heaven and earth" to go after the terrorist leader. One can argue over the details and whether one believes that a President Romney would have really been so reticent about trying to kill bin Laden. But hey, political campaigns ain't beanbag -- and any president with a major military accomplishment under his belt is going to take credit. If George W. Bush had killed bin Laden, he would have pulled the same move, and it would have been the Democrats howling in false outrage. In fact, they did just that when Bush appeared to be wrapping himself in the flag of 9/11 during the 2004 election. When you have a political advantage you're going to use it, and in this respect Obama is no different from any other man who has sat in the Oval Office.
What is distinctive, however, about Obama's attempt to turn the bin Laden raid into political gold is how uniquely effective a strategy it could end up being. At a time of economic stagnation and high unemployment, foreign-policy accomplishments aren't supposed to matter all that much in the general election. In fact, every major public opinion poll suggests that voters simply aren't that concerned about foreign policy, in general, and terrorism, in particular. At the same time, though, they give Obama high marks for his foreign-policy performance -- and his efforts in fighting terrorism are a big part of the reason.
In this regard, the killing of bin Laden is more than simply a key message point for Obama's campaign; it is actually the core of his reelection prospects. Here is a Democrat who not only talked the talk on the use of military force but walked the walk (a point reinforced by Peter Bergen's valentine to Obama's military aggressiveness and "warrior" ethos in April 29's New York Times that surely made many an Obama campaign staffer swoon).