WASHINGTON — In a first term marked by clear partisan divisions, President Obama’s decision to order a high-risk special forces operation targeting Osama bin Laden stands out as an unquestioned nonpartisan success.
But the one-year anniversary of the Al Qaeda mastermind’s death has become a flash point in early skirmishing between Obama and Mitt Romney, his likely Republican opponent in the fall election. It reflects both the competitive nature of this year’s presidential contest and Democrats’ zeal to highlight an advantage over the GOP on issues of national security.
Even as they denied the effort was tied to the milestone, senior Obama surrogates over the last week have attempted to raise questions about whether Romney would have made the decision to greenlight the mission at the terrorist leader’s compound in Pakistan.
They pointed to Romney’s own statements in his last run for the White House, in which he questioned the value of “moving heaven and earth” to catch Bin Laden, and criticized then-candidate Obama’s position that he would order military strikes against terrorists in Pakistan even without that nation’s consent.
From the East Room of the White House on Monday, with the prime minister of Japan at his side, Obama indirectly raised the question himself.
“I’d just recommend that everybody take a look at people’s previous statements in terms of whether they thought it was appropriate to go into Pakistan and take out Bin Laden,” Obama said. “I said that I’d go after Bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did. If there are others who have said one thing and now suggest they’d do something else, then I’d go ahead and let them explain it.”
Earlier Monday, while campaigning in New Hampshire, Romney rejected the idea that he would not have given a similar directive.
“Of course, of course,” he said. “Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.”
The White House, in a twist on the traditional Rose Garden strategy of using the trappings of incumbency to full advantage in a reelection effort, seems to be executing a “situation room” strategy.
The administration agreed to let NBC News cameras follow the president into the room where Obama and his top aides watched the Bin Laden operation unfold a year ago, captured in an iconic photograph.
“There’s silence at this point inside the room,” Obama tells NBC’s Brian Williams, revealing for perhaps the first time that he and his top aides were watching with visible apprehension as the first U.S. helicopter had mechanical problems.
On Thursday, the president’s campaign team deployed Vice President Joe Biden to New York, where he called it “legitimate” to question whether Bin Laden would still be alive today had Romney been elected in 2008.
In an online ad released Friday by the Obama campaign, former President Clinton hails Obama’s political courage in ordering the raid. The ad also quotes Romney as saying, “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
The ad netted a “half true” rating from PolitiFact, because although Romney is quoted accurately, the video omits other facts — that Romney was speaking about the need to focus on the global Al Qaeda network rather than one leader, and that Romney said the nation must track down Bin Laden and “make sure he pays for the outrage he exacted upon America.”
Republicans put Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) front and center to accuse Obama of politicizing the moment, saying Obama was “doing a shameless end-zone dance to help himself get reelected.”
“No one disputes that the president deserves credit for ordering the raid, but to politicize it in this way is the height of hypocrisy,” he said.
Obama said Monday there was no “excessive celebration” on his part, calling the anniversary an appropriate time for reflection.
Though the Sept. 11 attacks united Americans in the immediate aftermath, they have played a part in politics ever since. In the 2004 campaign,President George W. Bushran an ad arguing that the nation would be vulnerable to terrorist attacks if John F. Kerry were elected president.
Rudolph W. Giulianiused his role as “America’s mayor” in the aftermath of the attacks on New York as a focal point of his 2008 campaign, which prompted Biden, himself a presidential hopeful at the time, to quip: “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and9/11.”
Romney and Giuliani are set to appear together Tuesday at a New York fire station.
“There’s a common claim, made all the time, that politics stops at the water’s end or that politics should stop at the water’s edge. That may be an aspiration. It’s never been a reality,” said James Lindsay, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Gov. Romney’s doing what any candidate in his position [would] do — he’s crying foul and hoping that he’ll get sympathy from the voters,” Lindsay added. “If the shoes were reversed, it would be Democrats crying foul, and they cried foul back in 2004 in similar circumstances.”
Lindsay noted that Romney has been sharply critical of Obama on other areas of foreign policy, having accused him of a policy of “appeasement.” Romney’s campaign made the charge again in response to Obama’s latest comments.
“President Obama’s feckless foreign policy has emboldened our adversaries, weakened our allies, and threatens to break faith with our military. ... Gov. Romney has always understood we need a comprehensive plan to deal with the myriad threats America faces,” said spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Romney’s comment pointed to a risky move that — unlike the Bin Laden raid — went disastrously wrong and backfired on a first-term president. In April 1980, President Carter ordered a military rescue of 66 U.S. hostages in Iran. The mission failed — eight Americans were killed and no hostages were rescued — and many believe it contributed heavily to Carter’s reelection defeat.
Memoli and Parsons reported from Washington and Mehta from Portsmouth, N.H.