If you click on the URL www.gutsycall.com, you will notice that – as of this writing – it redirects you to the Obama 2012 re-election campaign website. The URL was apparently purchased yesterday, although the purchaser seems to have covered its tracks. It would appear that this is being done with the intention of using “Gutsy Call” as a campaign slogan for Obama’s 2012 campaign, in an effort to capitalize on President Obama’s decision –after just 16 hours of deliberation – to order the operation that led to Osama bin Laden’s death.
If that’s the plan, it speaks badly of President Obama as a leader and of the political instincts of his campaign team.
You see, the President of the United States is, first and foremost, the leader of a team. That’s why we generally look for proven leaders to do the job – people who have led others and run things have a sense not only of how you make things happen as President, but how to handle successes and failures that depend on those working beneath them. As the football saying goes, when you get to the end zone, know how to act like you’ve been there before. Presidents invariably get both more credit and more blame than they deserve – as Harry Truman loved to say, “the buck stops here” – and they can’t always control the people under them; Truman also famously remarked of his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, “Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this, do that,’ and nothing will happen.”
The takedown of Osama bin Laden was a magnificent example of teamwork by this Administration, building on the tools and the leads developed by the previous Administration. The intelligence community, under the leadership of CIA Director Leon Panetta, the military under the leadership of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, coordinated by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, among others – whatever other criticisms we may have of them on other days, all are part of a team that can take a well-deserved victory lap for tracking bin Laden to Abbottabad, planning and carrying out a mission to get him, and keeping the whole thing a secret all the way. Indeed, that’s the message of the now-iconic photo from the White House – the whole national security team is there, with the President off in one corner.
There is nothing wrong with that picture. The President assembles the team, the President approves the options they bring him, the President gets out of the way while the professionals do their job. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. And if President Obama is savvy about this unaccustomed trip to the end zone, that’s how he’ll play it and have his campaign spokesmen play it – just another day at the office, a job well done by all around, a victory that speaks for itself. No “spiking the football,” so to speak. Early polls certainly show that even Americans who aren’t fond of Obama or his presidency generally give him credit for a job well done here, and don’t need to have it explained to them why they should do so.
But if his campaign – the same campaign that ran on the vacuous and unsubtle “Yes We Can” and “Hope and Change” slogans in 2008 – intends to trumpet Obama’s decision to greenlight this mission as a heroic “gutsy call,” they could end up overplaying their hands as badly as John Kerry did with his “Reporting for Duty” convention. Because for all the credit Obama deserves for how things were accomplished on his watch by his team, there was nothing especially heroic or gutsy about making the decision to get bin Laden. Yes, Obama could have bombed bin Laden’s compound without sending in troops, and indeed he reportedly turned down the chance to do just that in March. That was the pre-9/11 Clinton-era approach to terrorist-hunting that President Bush famously derided (“When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt”), but it’s hard to imagine a post-9/11 American president who wouldn’t have given the green light to kill bin Laden by any means available, given the chance. Certainly plenty of high-value targets were taken out during the Bush years (Saddam, Zarqawi, Uday & Qusay, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), some of them by U.S. troops under hazardous conditions. And plenty of not-so-bold previous presidents have approved high-risk missions of this sort – Jimmy Carter approved the Desert One operation to rescue the Iranian hostages, Gerald Ford (with the advice of, among others, then-Chief of Staff Don Rumsfeld) approved the effort to rescue the crew of the SS Mayaguez. Sure, it could have gone badly, and the President had to sweat that in a way few civilians do when they make decisions. But ultimately, so what? If the Lakers are down 3 points with just a few ticks on the clock and they give the ball to Kobe Bryant, there’s a pretty good chance they lose the game (Kobe hits a 3-pointer only about a third of the time). But any coach in his right mind still gives the ball to Kobe. That’s not a gutsy call, it’s the only call. Who wouldn’t try to get bin Laden when you find out he’s sitting right there in the center of town?
Nor did Obama act with any particular heroic dispatch – while the 16 hours it took him to pull the trigger may seem fast compared to his months of indecision on the Afghan surge or weeks of agonizing while the Libyan resistance got routed, it is hardly the stuff that episodes of 24 are made of. You can’t argue with the results, but that’s not because Obama acted heroically but because the team of which he was the leader, all the way down to the SEALs who carried out the toughest and most dangerous parts of the plan, acted well as a team. Gutsy mission? Yes. Gutsy call? Not so much.
Why would Obama feel the need to overplay his own role in this, if “gutsy call” is indeed going to be a campaign slogan? We can only speculate whether from political desperation, a cynical view of the electorate or just an overweening need to be the center of attention.
Perhaps Obama and his campaign team are just too insecure to make this a team victory, especially since the team includes Gates (a Bush appointee as Secretary of Defense), Admiral Mullen (another Bush appointee as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), Panetta (Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff) and the Secretary of State, his old primary rival Hillary Clinton. Perhaps his campaign team wants this to be all about The One making a “gutsy call” that was the only decision any reasonable person would make under the circumstances. If so, that’s a sad comment on our Commander-in-Chief and probably bad politics as well. You’re in the end zone, Mr. President. Thank the offensive line and act like you’ve been there before.