Just like the widely hailed death of Osama bin Laden in May or the more recent — and more controversial — death of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki at the hands of the U.S. military, the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi at the end of an eight-month fight between loyalists and NATO-backed rebels was accompanied by minimal fanfare from the Obama administration despite its key role, with the president stoically reporting Thursday that "one of the world's longest-serving dictators is no more."
Why? Because if there's one precedent that's been set by President Barack Obama over the last three years, it's that the violent end of even a hated foe isn't something he'll brag about or gloat over. But make no mistake about it — although Qaddafi's death is realistically more of a nominal Middle East reset than a gleaming "Mission Accomplished" moment, it represents the triumph of Obama's firm reinstatement of Teddy Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" mantra in American foreign policy.
It also illustrates the way forward for our role as NATO's lead dog, where Obama's strategy — pilloried by critics as "leading from behind" for insisting that Britain, France and other world powers share the burden for the military operations that they authorize — was validated again.
Libya is just another example of Obama — whose approval ratings continue to flag — finishing the unfinished business of his predecessors. U.S. warplanes bombed Tripoli in 1986, but it wasn't Ronald Reagan who ultimately deposed Qaddafi. It was Obama.
And though critics regularly deride him as guileless and quiescent — during July's debt-ceiling debate, the New York Times' Drew Westen went as far as saying Obama "stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze" — upon further review, the president's résumé is actually pretty full.
Whether you think it was worth the effort to hunt down and kill bin Laden, it wasn't George W. Bush who did it in seven years — it was Obama who did it in two. Whether you think "ObamaCare" will "bend the cost curve" or that it was a distraction from the country's jobs crisis, it wasn't Bill Clinton who got universal health coverage done — it was Obama. Whether or not you like the GM bailout, it wasn't Detroit native Mitt Romney who rescued the U.S. auto industry — it was Obama. Hillary Clinton didn't triple the number of women on the Supreme Court. It was Obama.
As a senator, Obama voted for the TARP bailout a few weeks before he had to administer it as president — a stance whose unpopularity was matched only by the popularity of the 401(k)s that it preserved.
Romney, Gov. Rick Perry or fast-food tycoon Herman Cain all have a chance to unseat the president, but if they succeed, it might be harder than they think to roll back the legacy — one they're all on record describing as a failure — that Obama will leave. That includes presidential contender Michele Bachmann, who said that "the world is a better place without Qaddafi" before making sure to note that the operation that removed him was an effort she "opposed from its beginning."
Obama will hand his successor a world without scores of less-known terror leaders who've been killed by U.S. drones. The next president might intervene in another Middle East civil war, but the standard has now been set: Qaddafi was dispatched without a single American casualty.
If Obama isn't re-elected, he'll still leave behind a military where gays and lesbians serve openly and a country in which six states have legal same-sex marriage — advances that are unlikely to be undone. If there's a new president in 2013, he'll probably have a chance to repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulation bill, but not much chance of instituting new regulations of his own.
Each of those policy decisions can be quarreled with — and taken all together, they make for a hodgepodge of a campaign speech — but there's really no doubt that it's a formidable list of achievements.
Contrary to what was once assumed, Obama, the community organizer from Honolulu's toniest prep school, has been unable to inspire either red- or blue-state America with the kind of soaring speeches that he once delivered on the campaign trail. But his detractors' routine claims that he's done nothing in office sound increasingly tenuous, given the sheer amount of stuff he's done in three years.
Obama's foreign policy accomplishments have been more pronounced than steps he's taken on the domestic front. And when the news coverage fades, he won't likely hang on to any boost in popularity — after all, Qaddafi was more a relic of the past, and voters are presently focused on unemployment numbers that have hardened to a new normal of 9.1 percent. But the irony is that Obama might wind up getting voted out for the same reason that his influence will be hard to erase: He's been too busy getting things done.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.