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Obama Afghanistan visit shows powerful advantage of incumbency

May 01, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli
  • President Obama speaks to troops during a surprise visit to Bagram air base in Afghanistan.
President Obama speaks to troops during a surprise visit to Bagram air base… (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty…)

In the afternoon, Mitt Romney delivered pizzas to a Manhattan fire station. This evening, President Obama will deliver a nationally televised address from a war zone.

Talk about the advantages of incumbency.

The president's arrival in Afghanistan on Tuesday for a surprise visit to sign a strategic partnership agreement with his Afghan counterpart capped five days in which his reelection team and the administration seemed eager to highlight his role as commander-in-chief.

It began Thursday with a tough campaign speech by Vice President Joe Biden in New York, in which he questioned whether Romney would have made the same call Obama did to order the special forces raid in Pakistan targeting Osama bin Laden.

The following day, the campaign released a Web video in which former President Clinton said Obama "took the harder, and the more honorable path" in ordering the raid. The same ad then raised Romney's statement in the 2008 presidential campaign that it was not worth "moving heaven and Earth" to focus on catching Bin Laden.

Obama said Monday that there was no "excessive celebration" on the part of the White House in marking the anniversary of the raid that killed the Al Qaeda leader.

Even if there was a coordinated strategy at play, the White House and the Obama campaign would never admit it.

"It was always the president's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops," a senior administration official told reporters.

But Republican complaints about the politicization of the military success were replaced by the what seemed in some instances to be grudging praise for a commander-in-chief overseas with the U.S. military in harm's way, after word of the secret trip became public.

In his address tonight, Obama will signal that the end of an increasingly unpopular war is in sight.

"My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the predawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon," Obama will say tonight, according to excerpts released by the White House.

"This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end."

Obama's status as a world leader will be on display beyond this week. He hosts world leaders at Camp David and his hometown of Chicago for the Group of 8 and NATO summits, respectively, in just more than two weeks.

An incumbent president emphasizing his role as commander-in-chief is hardly new. In his 2004 reelection campaign, President George W. Bush cast himself as a decisive figure who would keep the country safe. According to the advertising tracking service CMAG, the Republican campaign's most-aired television advertisement during that race was one attacking Democratic challenger John F. Kerry for "repeatedly [opposing] weapons vital to winning the war on terror," including body armor for troops. It called Kerry's record on national security "troubling."

But there's also a lesson in how stagecraft can backfire. It was nine years ago today that Bush landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to declare, before a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," the end of major U.S. combat operations in Iraq.

The end of that war would not come until years later, under Obama's watch.

There's also the question of how lasting the last week's activities will be in the eyes of voters this fall.

"The public may give the nod, at least at this point, to President Obama on national security issues, but national security isn't at the top of the list of issues for the American public," said James Lindsay, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Indeed, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 59% of voters called terrorism "very important" to their vote this fall, compared with 75% who said so in August 2004. Eighty-six percent said that of the economy today. 

michael.memoli@latimes.com
twitter.com/mikememoli

Original source: Obama Afghanistan visit shows powerful advantage of incumbency

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