Who's Making Political Hay Out Of Osama Bin Laden?

May 2, 2012
Originally published on May 3, 2012 3:18 pm
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, as our program celebrates five years on the air this week, we've been hearing from some other five year olds. They are telling us what's fun about being five. We'll hear more in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for our visit to the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh look at the week's news with a panel of women writers, journalists and commentators.

Today, we'll talk about President Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. We'll also talk about some new political ad campaigns. Even Bo, the first dog, is being put out on the trail. We'll ask if the general election campaign - I'm sorry - has already gone to the dogs. I'm sorry. That's the last one. It's the last pun, I promise. I promise.


MARTIN: Sitting in the chairs for a new do this week are Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief of the website The Wise Latina Club. Michelle Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. That's an independent libertarian think tank. Asra Nomani teaches journalism at Georgetown University. She also conducts cultural sensitivity training for the U.S. military and she's the author of several books. And Danielle Belton is author of the pop culture and politics blog, The Black Snob. They're all here in our Washington, D.C. studio.

So President Obama traveled to Afghanistan yesterday in what was initially a top secret trip. He arrived in the dark of night, local time, later gave a televised address to the American people. I'll just play a short clip in case you missed it.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One year ago, from base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set to defeat al-Qaida and deny it a chance to rebuild is now within our reach.

MARTIN: You know, during the visit, President Obama and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, signed a strategic partnership agreement to draw down American troops after a war that's lasted more than a decade. So I want to hear from each of you on this.

Viviana, why don't you start? What did you think of the trip and the president's message?

VIVIANA HURTADO: Well, I think this just confirms how President Obama really was able to - is going to turn out to be one of the strongest foreign policy presidents, and it's quite ironic because I covered the 2008 election and that was his Achilles heel. He was certainly - against Senator John McCain, he was seen as very inexperienced and yet he was able to draw down the Iraq war, as well as lead the coalition that captured and killed Gadhafi and also captured Osama bin Laden. That is the jewel in his crown.

And so I think what's going to be really interesting is, going forward, as far as the campaign is concerned, it is going to certainly be a strength, but remember that the economy is very much the most important topic.

MARTIN: Asra, you have such a unique perspective, you know, here because you do work in cultural sensitivity training. You are Muslim-American yourself. What's your take of it? I mean, there are already criticisms from some that this was kind of triumphalism and inappropriate, you know, not all necessarily from the president's political opponents, although chiefly.


MARTIN: What do you think?

NOMANI: Well, you know, as commander in chief, he definitely successfully completed an important tactical military operation. Like, we cannot deny that, but it's also, today, the ninth anniversary of President Bush's mission accomplished speech and I believe that this is mission accomplished 2.0.

You know, that was a victory, defeating Osama bin Laden for America and there isn't individual, I think, monopoly on the success. It was really a collective one by this country and so, in that way, I believe that we're overlooking, you know, the sacrifices that a lot of people have made.

And the other thing that I found a little bit disturbing was that the rhetoric was that - mission accomplished. We've done it. Afghanistan is the place where this was all conducted -the 9/11 attacks. But, in two days, I'll be on a flight going to Guantanamo. I just got approval by the Defense Department to be at the Khalid Sheikh Muhammed hearings.

And, if you really want to go where 9/11 was handled and was orchestrated, you'd have to go to a cyber cafe in a shady neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan called Liari (ph). That's where Khalid Sheikh Muhammed sat and did all of the operational details. And so I think we're overlooking a lot of the reality of the challenge that we've got on terrorism and al-Qaida.

MARTIN: Danielle, what do you think? Triumphalism? Appropriate? What's your take?

DANIELLE BELTON: I feel like, considering the larger scheme of things and what the last - what the previous administration was like in dealing with international relations, particularly in the Middle East, that it was a much more appropriate response and the fact that we are drawing down in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is dead. I mean, technically, just on a baseline, a way of calling a victory, this is a victory of sorts.

For me, it was a victory at a very high cost and the fact that we were very, very distracted for a very, very long time in our foreign policy, almost to an irresponsible degree, was kind of horrifying to me and I feel like we've made many compromises and many decisions in our war on terror that if - I felt have damaged - the United States have harmed the perception that people have about us. And so the least I can ever expect from our presidential administration is just to be competent.

Like, if you're going to execute a war, if you're going to fight terrorism, if you're going to deal with threats to the United States, just do it with responsibility. And so, I can at least say that the Obama administration has tried to do that.

MARTIN: Interesting because, you know, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney commented on how he believes the president is using the anniversary for political gain. I'll just play a short clip of what he said yesterday during a visit to a New York firehouse where he was accompanied by Rudy Giuliani, a former presidential candidate himself who was mayor at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

At one point, Mitt Romney had to talk over a heckler. Well, this is New York, so I mean, that could just be a friendly - you know, just a way of saying, hi. But here it is. Here's what he said.

MITT ROMNEY: You know, I think it's totally appropriate for the president to express to the American people the view that he has, that he had an important role in taking out Osama bin Laden. I think politicizing it was - and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together, which was the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, Michelle, I think, there, he's not talking about the president's trip to Afghanistan, where he did not talk about his political opponent. He's talking about a campaign ad put out by, I think, the Obama - a superPAC, a pro-Obama superPAC, which hails his courage and so forth. So what's your take on this, Michelle?

MICHELLE BERNARD: I think my take is a little bit different than everyone's take. If you look at this purely from a political standpoint and take into consideration that we are in an election year, I think this was brilliant political strategy on behalf of the president.

Number one, he's not making something up. What occurred under his watch is absolutely something that's going to go down in the history books for many, many years and, if you look at the statements that the president has made about the killing of Osama bin Laden, he has been really very, very generous in not just taking credit for himself, but thanking the troops, thanking the families whose children - whose sons and daughters have given their lives, talking about the fact that, when he knew that Osama bin Laden was dead, he personally called President Bush and told him that, because of the policies enacted in the Bush administration and carried out and continued under the Obama administration, Osama bin Laden was dead.

I think it was - it's a very important stance to take and, quite frankly, we see him now as strong. We see him as the commander in chief. We see him as someone who is standing by his campaign promises with regard to withdrawing troops from Iraq, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. And quite frankly, from a political standpoint alone, he has taken away an argument that many Republicans would use against him, which was that he's weak on foreign policy and he's weak on national security.

So that is just something that he's taken away from the Republican party and many people are going to remember that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're having a visit to the Beauty Shop with Michelle Bernard of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. That's an independent libertarian think tank. Journalism professor and author, Asra Nomani. Danielle Belton, author of The Black Snob website. And Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club.

Now, we were talking about ads. Michelle, you know, who would have thought that dogs would be such a big issue in the campaign? Who would have thought that? You know, the White House dog, Bo, is being featured in some political ads. He's on the website that says join pet lovers for Obama. Another one says - Facebook ad says bark for Barack. I thought there were no more puns, but I'm not responsible for this one.

And some of this seems to be playing on the criticism of Mitt Romney for driving with his dog in a carrier on the roof of his car. You know, I'm just - I don't know. I'm fascinated by how much traction this is and then, of course, his critics picked up on this line in President Obama's memoir, oh, those many years ago, saying that when he was in Indonesia with his mother and step-father, that he ate dog meat because that was part of the local diet. And so, I was just - I don't know. What do you...

BERNARD: You know, the whole thing is - it's pretty baffling, but it's also kind of funny and cute in a way, simply because it - I mean, it's not so much about Bo or so much about the Romney dog that had to sit up on the roof of the car for a family vacation. But it really does, I think, send a message to the American public about the difference in personalities of the two men running to be the leader of the most important nation in the world.

You go back to 2008 and you think about the images of then-Senator Obama telling his daughters that, you know, you're going to get the puppy that you wanted and we see him as a husband. We see him as a father. We see him as someone who's very, very personable. And, with Mitt Romney, all we see is the person who has to ask his wife what women want and what women think.

It's a stark contrast and I think that, you know, in terms of a micro-advertising strategy, it's probably a really smart one. How many kids are going to go home and say, mom and dad, please vote for the president. He's so nice to his dog. And a lot of those parents are going to go, you know what? OK, honey. I'll do that.


MARTIN: Well...

NOMANI: No way. You don't mean that seriously, right?

BERNARD: Hey, I don't know. I don't know.

NOMANI: I mean, I got...

MARTIN: Well, people vote based on who they want to have a beer with. I mean, I don't know. Asra, what do you think? You're...

NOMANI: Well, I got a puppy last year, so I got to say, you know, it would work for me, but I'll tell you, the ad on Osama bin Laden did not work for me. It was, I thought, a little bit in your face and, you know, if you really look at the details of it, where you've got President Clinton saying, wow, what a great job President Obama did, but then, you know, he had the first missile strike trying to get at Osama bin Laden many years ago and that failed. And, you know, there's just so many details that we're not going to get into.

MARTIN: Well, let me just tell you what the Obama ad said that some people are reacting to. It quotes...

NOMANI: Right.

MARTIN: ...Mitt Romney as saying it's not worth moving heaven and earth, spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person. And so it is a negative ad aimed at Mitt Romney.

NOMANI: Right. And...

MARTIN: OK. So - and it doesn't work for you because - what?

NOMANI: Because I think, you know, he was in a unique position as the president to be able to have a tactical operation against a target of the United States and you can't project what you would do in that kind of situation. I mean, I think most commanders in chief would, if possible, go after Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, whoever - Moammar Gadhafi - whoever it may be that is on the target list.

And so I feel like it's a reach. It's a reach.

BELTON: Can I just raise one point, though?

MARTIN: OK. Hold on a sec. Well, we got to get the other folks in this. Danielle, you want to just get in this?

BELTON: I feel like it's a fair attack. I mean, this is a presidential election. In 2008, it came up, hypotheticals about what you would do in international relation situations came up all the time where you talk about what would happen if a dirty bomb - if someone got a hold of one. What would happen if, you know, someone from Pakistan attacked us? It was all these constant questions, both in the Republican and the Democratic debates, and in the debates between Obama and McCain, where they were asked routinely, like, what would they do in situations dealing with terrorists or international threats or North Korea.

So I don't feel like it's beyond the pale to use someone's words that they said about a hypothetical because, I mean, everything that Obama says is fair game from those debates in 2008.

MARTIN: Viviana?

HURTADO: And I think what we're going to see is a real intensification of this. I think I started seeing that about in March when I blogged about the dog, that actually the campaign was going to the dogs because there was a Spanish language reporter that was given access to an interview - a local reporter - with the president. And, as she was shooting her standup, Bo Obama just happened to have run in the back. Anyway, it was political...

MARTIN: Good thing she's not allergic.

HURTADO: ...satire. It was political satire. It was a lot of fun and, indeed, this may be a tale, T-A-L-E, or T-A-I-L of two presidents; their likability, their leadership style. But one thing that I think is really interesting is - what we're talking right here - the tension between micro and macro...

MARTIN: Messaging. That's true.

HURTADO: ...messaging and I think a lot of tension...

MARTIN: A lot of targeting of specific groups, the Latino voters, African-American voters.

HURTADO: Dog lovers, nurses. But what's going to be very interesting that I'm hearing in this debate is the importance of keeping both of those messages online, whether it's macro or whether it's macro.

MARTIN: Michelle, final thought? And I'm just - you know I'm favoring you because you're also named Michelle. Right? So...


BERNARD: Michelle with two Ls. Final thought is, on advertising, though. Go back to 2008 and remember those ads. Who do you want answering the phone at 4:00 in the morning? And so whether these ads hurt Mitt Romney or not, they absolutely help Barack Obama. He is a completely different candidate in the view of the American public than he was four years ago when people thought that he was the dove and Hillary Clinton was the hawk.

NOMANI: Can I just go back a little further? Which is 1992, Clinton used Fleetwood Mac's song, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," and I think that's where people want to look, also.

MARTIN: Asra Nomani is a professor of journalism at Georgetown University. She's the author of several books and she teaches cultural sensitivity to the U.S. military. Viviana Hurtado is blogger-in-chief at the website The Wise Latina Club. Michelle Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. That's an independent libertarian think tank. And Danielle Belton is The Black Snob. She blogs on her website about pop culture and politics.

Ladies, thank you so much for helping us celebrate our fifth anniversary on the air.

BELTON: Thank you. Congratulations.

NOMANI: Congratulations, Michel.

BERNARD: Happy fifth anniversary.

HURTADO: Happy birthday.

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