Trump Card Played

I don’t know if the president’s trip to Afghanistan, the “security agreement” he signed, or the speech he made that was beamed back home, will be remembered much at all in accounts of the Obama presidency or of the Afghan war. A lot obviously depends on what happens next in Afghanistan, and there are dozens of things that can go badly wrong.

But the trip and speech did put an end, at least temporarily, to a pretty intensive campaign by Republicans to circumscribe the president’s ability to take credit for military or even foreign policy successes, which have been important in holding up his job approval ratings. Here’s how Salon‘s Steve Koracki explained the gambit as “making Mitt look small”:

After Obama authorized a campaign video that suggested Romney wouldn’t have given the go ahead for the mission that killed the al-Qaeda leader, Romney and an army of Republican leaders and commentators cranked up the righteous indignation, blasting Obama for politicizing what should have been a nationally unifying commemoration. When their outrage was amplified by neutral and even some decidedly non-Republican media voices, it seemed possible that Obama really had gone too far and that a backlash might be brewing.

And so it was that Romney decided to spend Tuesday, the exact anniversary of the bin Laden raid, with Rudy Giuliani, who a decade after 9/11 is still routinely referred to by the press as “America’s mayor.” The two men – bitter enemies until very recently – showed up at a New York City firehouse for a pizza delivery photo op, then took turns shaming Obama….

But as the Mitt-and-Rudy show playing out, word was spreading that Obama had quietly left the country and arrived in Afghanistan….

[Obama delivered] was a dramatic, eloquent speech on an emotional day, witnessed live by tens of millions of Americans who are ready to put the war in the rearview mirror. Whatever political benefit Romney reaped from his appearance with Giuliani – and from the past few days of wailing by the GOP – evaporated on the spot. Romney seemed to recognize it, too.

“I am pleased that President Obama has returned to Afghanistan,” he said in a statement released after the speech. “Our troops and the American people deserve to hear from our President about what is at stake in this war.”

To put it another way, Obama’s ultimate response to demands that he not “exploit for political purposes” his role as commander-in-chief was to say “Watch this!” and then reappear on television screens live from Kabul. Presidents can make news however and whenever they want, and when they are performing legitimate national security functions, no one dares question their right to do so even if it’s in the middle of a reelection campaign. Team Romney might want to remember that next time it starts one of these kerfuffles over the president being too “political.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.