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Obama delivered America’s Most Wanted – but the voters want more

Obama may have delivered the al-Qaeda leader’s proverbial scalp, but the gloom of the past decade is

In the summer of 2001, a 40-year-old member of the Illinois state legislature was contemplating a run for the United States Senate three years later. The previous year, he had been trounced in a bid for the House of Representatives, but this had not dissuaded him from mulling an even higher promotion. He set up a meeting with the Chicago media consultant Eric Adelstein to discuss a Senate campaign. But then came the attacks of 11 September 2001.

“So, 9/11 happens and immediately you have all these reports [that] the guy who did this thing is Osama Bin Laden," Barack Obama recounted in David Mendell's 2007 biography. "Suddenly, Adelstein's interest in the meeting had diminished. We talked about it and he said that the name thing was really going to be a problem for me now. In fairness to Eric, I think at that point the notion that somebody named Barack Obama could win anything - it just seemed pretty dim."

Ah, the irony. Despite that brutal name of his (not to mention his middle name, Hussein), Obama ran in 2004 and won - and won again four years later (when absentee ballots in one New York county listed his name as "Osama"). Meanwhile, his near-namesake was on the loose, having fled Tora Bora, and was taunting the Texan president who had pledged to lasso him, "dead or alive".

But it was, of all people, Obama - whose best pals in college were Pakistani (he even visited their homeland in 1981), who takes conspicuous care to refer to that country, un-American style, as "Pah-kee-stahn" and whose administration earned Republican derision for dropping the phrase "war on terror" for "overseas contingency operations" - who authorised the high-risk raid on the Abbottabad compound and finished the job that his two predecessors had been unable to carry off.

After the washout

While the muse Clio delights over this particularly improbable scroll, we Americans are left to consider the ramifications. Hardly had the ripples settled over Bin Laden's watery grave in the Arabian Sea than pundits began to speculate about the impact of the killing on Obama's re-election prospects. At the very least, it appears that the bold mission will complicate a major Republican line of attack, which casts Obama as a tentative leader who apologises for his nation's past aggressions, dithers over Libya and tries to make nice with the Iranian government. In this regard, it is noteworthy that Obama decided, just prior to the raid, to take on a related line of attack: the astonishingly widespread suspicion that he is not a US citizen.

In the span of a few days, Obama produced both the long-form birth certificate and the proverbial scalp of America's Most Wanted. The task for those still seeking to brand the 44th president as "the other" just got harder.

Yet a lasting wave of renewed popularity for Obama is unlikely. For starters, so much time has passed since Bin Laden was at the forefront of our consciousness. Watching footage of the crowds cheering his death outside the White House, it was hard not to feel the curmudgeon: how could these kids comprehend the moment, when many of them were barely teenagers on
11 September 2001?

The country that gives so little thought to the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan has also been giving little thought to the bearded Saudi who started it all. This is because of our short attention span, but also our awareness that Bin Laden had little to do with what trouble still stirs under al-Qaeda's banner in Yemen, Morocco or Germany.

More than that, any glory accruing from this retributive justice threatens to be swamped by the gloom that continues to envelop the electorate. Even as the recovery continues its turtle's march forward, polls have been recording mounting levels of pessimism, as voters confront anaemic job growth and agitate over the national debt and that most reliable driver of the American public mood, high petrol prices.

It is hard to celebrate a successful end to a decade-long chase of a villain when that decade has otherwise been such a washout. Even before the crash, median wages were stagnant; today, house prices in many states have plunged to the levels of the 1990s.

New hope

The only part of the country that has truly thrived in these years of the hunt for Bin Laden is greater Washington, DC, thanks in large part to the metastasising homeland security and intelligence apparatus that sprang up around the capital after 11 September 2001. Now that al-Qaeda has suffered this blow, there will be some calls to ratchet back the apparatus, but the history of the military-industrial complex suggests little of the sort will happen. The airwaves on 2 May were full of the experts' warnings that the threat was still out there.

That is, unless the president manages to use Bin Laden's end to bracket definitively the era that began with those awful planes and to move the country beyond the mindset that prevailed during it. It was Candidate Obama, after all, who decried the use of 11 September 2001 as a "political bludgeon" and the "colour-coded politics of fear" favoured by the Bush administration, with its constant orange and red terror alerts. It was Obama who declared that the "central front" of the war against al-Qaeda was not in Iraq but in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now that this refocusing has paid off, it will be up to him to determine if that war is over.

There are still 172 inmates at Guantanamo Bay and 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan. The man who campaigned on an anti-war platform must decide whether he is willing to give up the mantle of a commander flush from victory at the front.

Alec MacGillis is a staff writer for the Washington Post.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden