A few minutes into his monologue at Saturday evening's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers did an Osama bin Laden joke that had President Barack Obama laughing and smiling, seated on the dais in black tie and revealing nothing as U.S. special forces prepared an assault that left bin Laden dead 24 hours later.
The president's on-camera chuckle said as much about his foreign policy posture as anything he's done in the two-plus years of his presidency.
Whether giving the order to snipe a Somali pirate, launching missile strikes in Libya while touring Brazil or attacking al-Qaida leaders with unmanned Predator drones controlled remotely from a Las Vegas Air Force base, the president has exhibited a decidedly icy — and, to some, surprisingly consistent — application of military power, flummoxing detractors who've tried for years to cast him as a feckless commander in chief.
Throughout his tenure, opponents like former Vice President Dick Cheney looked to pin the "dithering" tag on Obama to suggest that he's an unfit commander in chief. There's also the view expressed Monday by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough — while he was attempting to praise Obama — that in killing bin Laden, Obama went "against his own ideological leanings." But they're both wrong.
If they'd been paying attention, they would have known that fighting bin Laden was what Obama planned to do all along. Contrary to the suppositions of many of the president's critics and a lot of his supporters, Obama never signaled that he'd play the peacenik role as president. On bin Laden especially, he has said the same thing all along:
In the same famous 2002 speech where he said, "I don't oppose all wars … What I am opposed to is a dumb war," Obama underscored his opposition to the Iraq war by declaring his desire to "finish the fight with bin Laden and al-Qaida."
Debating Sen. John McCain in 2008, then-Sen. Obama — known then for florid, high-toned speeches — said plainly that "if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush al-Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority." Al-Qaida's not crushed, but it's a campaign promise that was kept.
Accepting the Nobel Prize in 2009, Obama told European admirers that "as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation," he did not have the luxury to "stand idle in the face of threats to the American people," and admonished that he wouldn't hesitate to use force in that defense, concluding that mere "negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms."
And though there’s been continuous speculation about the absence of an "Obama Doctrine" in foreign affairs, the bookending of his cautious handling of the "Arab spring" — recently described in a widely-read New Yorker profile as “leading from behind” — with this week’s successful attack on Al Qaeda’s founder, Obama got a step closer to actualizing the thesis of his inaugural, signaling that "We will extend a hand if you unclench your fist" but "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense."
Praising Obama Monday, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) — a frequent Obama critic — summed up what could emerge as a new consensus on Obama, saying, "He had to pull the trigger on it. He carried it out. I supported President Bush's polices; the fact is, it was President Obama who carried this mission to conclusion. I think it's important for all Americans to stand behind him and give him the credit, as commander in chief, for what he did."
Bin Laden's death halfway around the world has convinced Americans of something that no speech could: Obama is a war president. The president's approach isn't a policy change. It's a conscious decision to forswear George W. Bush's brash rhetoric — but not his violence.
The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz described bin Laden's killing as a "personal triumph" for Obama because, as the Huffington Post's Howard Fineman observed, the man "known more for faith in diplomacy than force" was the president who ordered bin Laden's death. Addressing the nation Sunday night, Obama commended the Navy SEALs who executed the attack. He offered condolences to the families of 9/11 victims, reported that he'd personally briefed former Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton and reissued his disclaimer that "our war is not against Islam."
He also made sure to remind Americans that he had finally done what he said he would do all along.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.