Still striving to do big things

In January, President Obama told a story in his State of the Union address about a Pennsylvania small business owner whose innovations helped save trapped Chilean miners. One of the business’ workers later boasted, “We do big things,” and Obama used the line to reinforce his belief in American greatness.

Michael Scherer noted the other day that the White House intends to make a “thematic connection” between this argument and the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. This week, we saw a fair amount of this with varying degrees of subtlety.

Notice, for example, President Obama’s remarks to U.S. troops at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, yesterday afternoon.

“We’re still the America that does the hard things, that does the great things. We’re the nation that always dared to dream. We’re the nation that’s willing to take risks — revolutionaries breaking free from an empire; pioneers heading West to settle new frontiers; innovators building railways and laying the highways and putting a man on the surface of the moon.

“We are the nation — and you’re the Division — that parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day, freeing a continent, liberating concentration camps. We’re the nation that, all those years ago, sent your Division to a high school in Arkansas so that nine black students could get an education. That was you. Because we believed that all men are created equal; that everyone deserves a chance to realize their God-given potential.

“We’re the nation that has faced tough times before — tougher times than these. But when our Union frayed, when the Depression came, when our harbor was bombed, when our country was attacked on that September day, when disaster strikes like that tornado that just ripped through this region, we do not falter. We don’t turn back. We pick ourselves up and we get on with the hard task of keeping our country strong and safe.

“See, there’s nothing we can’t do together, 101st, when we remember who we are, that is the United States of America. When we remember that, no problem is too hard and no challenge is too great. And that is why I am so confident that, with your brave service, America’s greatest days are still to come.”

The president didn’t explicitly connect the bin Laden mission to the larger theme, but his point was hard to miss.

And it’s a theme the president and his team are likely to keep emphasizing going forward.

As Scherer noted in his report, before his speech about bin Laden on Sunday night had even been written, the president “wanted to revisit” the “We do big things” theme.

“Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” he told the world hours later, after going through several revisions of a draft in the Oval Office with his speechwriter. “The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”

In that moment, the President was trying to illustrate a larger theme — one beyond the scope of al-Qaeda or the war on terror. He was restating the central political message of his nascent reelection campaign, which is centered around the idea that Obama is the person best able to bring the nation out of its decade-long malaise to win the future. […]

In addition to fighting wars and signing budgets, U.S. Presidents are tasked with telling the national story in times of tragedy and victory. For Obama at this moment, that story is about a nation coming out of a long decade of decline and frustration. It is a story of a President leading the country back to greatness, and it is the platform on which his reelection campaign will be built.

This is worth watching. Obviously, when evaluating the bin Laden killing in an electoral context, it stands to reason that the events in Abbottabad will be an achievement the Obama/Biden 2012 team will be anxious to tout.

It won’t, however, be a crass, heavy-handed “Vote for us; we killed the bad guy” message. It can’t be. But it can work with the larger theme — killing the man responsible for 9/11 was a “big thing,” and this is a president who does “big things,” and who wants the country to strive for more “big things.”

It’s a theme that ties bin Laden to health care reform, ending the Great Recession, bringing safeguards and accountability to Wall Street, ending the war in Iraq, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” etc.

The larger message is starting to take shape. Republicans want to turn back; Obama-led Democrats want to charge ahead. Republicans want less; Dems want more. Republicans are pessimistic; Dems are optimistic.

Republicans are thinking small; Dems are thinking big.

I can think of far worse themes to build a national campaign around.