Bessent: Obama deserves a victory lap

President Barack Obama talks to soldiers at Bagram

President Barack Obama talks to soldiers at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, on May 2. (Credit: AP Photo/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

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Taking credit and assigning blame are the most nakedly political things elected officials do. So it's no shock that the sniping over President Barack Obama's trip to Afghanistan last week on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's execution is partisan and petty.

His critics insist he overpoliticized getting America's most wanted terrorist, shamelessly "spiking the ball" to promote his own re-election while marking that national triumph.

A politician caught being political -- in an election year no less. It isn't exactly shocking. But such circumstances are often a no-win situation for a president. Claim credit for an accomplishment and you take heat for self promotion. On the flip side, blame a previous administration for problems you inherited and you take heat for that, too.


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That's the story of the two defining issues for Obama's time in the White House: the war with al-Qaida and the economic crisis.

Now that the nation's major economic concern is the fitful pace of recovery, it's easy to forget how much worse things were in 2009 when Obama was inaugurated. Wall Street was in free fall. Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers had collapsed. General Motors and Chrysler were on the brink. Banks were clamoring for Washington to save them. It was all but impossible for consumers or businesses to get a loan. Home values were dropping with no bottom in sight. Jobs were disappearing and retirement nest eggs were shriveling. That's the mess Obama walked into.

But the public needed solutions, and providing them was the president's job. So in about a heartbeat, most people lost patience with anyone in the new administration pointing out the obvious -- that those problems had germinated and blossomed on President George W. Bush's watch. Laying blame where the timeline clearly demonstrated it belonged was seen as an attempt to duck responsibility.

It was similar for Bush, who felt the sting of condemnation when the run-up to the 9/11 attack was parsed. Al-Qaida, with all its malevolent intent, didn't just spring up fully formed during the first nine months of the Bush presidency. The Clinton administration, which was fighting off impeachment, clearly missed important danger signs. The intelligence community famously failed to connect the dots, and the nation was tragically vulnerable as a result. But there was no patience for attempts by the Bush administration to point any of that out either.

The hard political reality is that presidents are blamed for all the bad things that happen on their watch, and it doesn't much matter if they deserve it. That's just the way it is.

So it's only fair that the corollary is true, too. Presidents get credit when things go well. If we expect them to take the heat, we shouldn't complain when they bask in the glow. And in this case, Obama earned his celebratory lap.

He has taken the war to al-Qaida as commander in chief. Al-Qaida's leadership is dead or in disarray. Its Taliban enablers have been driven from power in Afghanistan. There have been no subsequent, successful terrorist attacks on American soil -- a sterling record that Bush deserved credit for over seven years. Terrorist plots have been foiled as recently as this week, and hundreds of terrorists have been convicted and locked up.

And bin Laden is dead, taken out in a daring special forces raid that Obama green-lighted despite the crippling political downside he would have faced had the mission failed. The contrast with Bush, who said of bin Laden, "I don't know where he is. I just don't spend that much time on him really," is striking.

So take the carping about Obama "spiking the ball" for what it is. Predictable political noise.

Alvin Bessent is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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