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Savouring the sweet smell of vindication Add to ...

So much of Barack Obama's presidency had been defined by his modesty in articulating and executing his goals that "leading from behind" had become the leitmotif of a White House inclined toward compromise.

By ridding the world of Osama bin Laden, however, Mr. Obama has arguably earned the political capital to impose his will on Congress in a host of policy areas, from the budget on down.

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Will he seize the moment?

The jubilant crowds that converged on the White House and World Trade Center site on Sunday night merely hinted at the deep appreciation Americans are feeling toward the President and those intrepid Navy Seals he commands.

The death of Mr. bin Laden, until Sunday the best-known and most-hated of the FBI's most-wanted, is ostensibly the reason for all the celebrating. But the festive mood also reflects Americans' renewed sense of their own power and efficacy.

Confidence in the ability of the United States to win at anything waned precipitously after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A decade went by without capturing Mr. bin Laden. The country sunk $1.3-trillion (U.S.) into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with mostly bitterness to show for it.

The decline of the U.S. economy became less and less theoretical with China's unstoppable rise. The $14-trillion national debt became as much of a threat to America's predominance as the political gridlock that prevented the country from defusing its fiscal time bomb.

The national mood had come to reflect those daunting realities. Had you asked them on Saturday, most Americans might have wagered that Mr. bin Laden would never be captured.

The raid on Mr. bin Laden's compound near Islamabad, a mission fraught with incalculable downside risk, has changed the narrative. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, it carries with it the sweet savour of vindication.

As Mr. Obama said on Monday, fittingly, as fate would have it, at a ceremony to award the Medal of Honor to two soldiers killed in the Korean War: "We are reminded that, as a nation, there's nothing we can't do when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we work together, when we remember the sense of unity that defines us Americans."

Mr. Obama's leadership emerges from this achievement enhanced in every way. The mission to take out Mr. bin Laden was his oeuvre from start to finish. He chose a riskier helicopter raid over a bombing to limit civilian casualties and, most important, obtain proof that the intended target was hit.

That the mission was nearing its climax at the very moment Mr. Obama was telling jokes at the annual White House correspondents' dinner inspires awe. The President betrayed nary a frayed nerve at Saturday's dinner, despite knowing the costs of a failed mission would have been catastrophic.

"I admire the courage of the President to make a decision like this because if something had gone wrong everyone would have been blaming him," offered Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York on 9/11 and a former top Republican presidential hopeful.

Mr. Obama's approval rating, which has slipped back to its 2010 lows in recent weeks, will experience an upward spike - just as George W. Bush's did after capturing a much lesser quarry, Saddam Hussein, in 2003.

Whether it endures will depend, partly, on what the President does with his new political capital.

Though many Democrats have been critical of Mr. Obama for preserving most of the anti-terrorism policies of George W. Bush, they will be grateful for this victory. It provides Mr. Obama with renewed leverage to pursue their agenda. The liberal base will push even harder now.

Mr. Obama's political hand is strengthened as the White House enters budget negotiations with Republicans in Congress. But while foreign policy victories invariably boost presidential power, domestic politics is another arena altogether.

Will Mr. Obama push back against GOP calls for radical spending cuts as a quid pro quo for raising the debt ceiling? Will he stand his ground in protecting his cherished investments in education, clean energy and infrastructure and preserving the social safety net?

"I would hope that he will see this as an opportunity to tackle other things more aggressively than he has been doing," said Elayne Rapping, professor emeritus of American studies at SUNY Buffalo. "But I don't see him as having the fire in his belly to get up and fight ideological battles."

Still, Mr. Obama has suddenly become a more daunting adversary for Republicans in Congress. Not only has the GOP's "soft on terrorism" barb lost its zing, Mr. Obama proved better than Republicans at the national security game at which they have long claimed to excel.

"This puts a dent in the Republican rhetoric, which has been over the top in bashing Obama, especially for not showing leadership," Prof. Rapping insisted. "This is an example of true leadership."

 

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