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How Major Is the Killing of Osama bin Laden?

The reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden strikes me as more interesting than the death of the man who plotted so many acts of international terrorism.

Members of the national media treated the announcement of the demise of bin Laden, who has become a symbol of anti-Americanism and terror, as if it were a combination of V-J Day, the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. hockey team victory and the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

This constitutes the beginning of a new era in the Middle East, some told us. It’s a “moment of national unity,” proclaimed one Washington Post headline. And these are probably some of the more temperate conclusions.

Politicians including presidential hopeful Rick Santorum (R), New Hampshire Democratic Congressional challenger Ann McLane Kuster, Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) and New York state Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R) scrambled to send out “statements” on the event, apparently believing that we all were at the edge of our seats waiting to hear what they had to say about the death of bin Laden.

Even the Libertarian Party released a statement.

And some average folks (if you can call college students “average folks”) went to the streets to wave flags, honk their horns and cheer at the news of the killing. Chest-pounding about something like this is inevitable, I suppose, even if the people doing the chest-pounding had nothing to do with the killing.

My own reaction is more muted. I thought it was a big event but not a big deal.

The killing of bin Laden almost 10 years after the attacks of 9/11 lacks much of an emotional punch for me. Yes, I’m glad that justice has been done, but his death really doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t undo the death and destruction that he caused. It doesn’t cause me to celebrate.

If anything, the announcement of bin Laden’s death seems anticlimactic.

If U.S. forces had killed him days or even weeks after the 9/11 attacks, I think I would have felt more joy, a greater sense of retribution. But now, after all of these years, the announcement reminded me of that old saying, “a day late and a dollar short.”

The 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon certainly changed our world, but the recent events in the Middle East and the nation’s financial and economic challenges seem much more immediate and potentially even more important than the death of bin Laden, at least to me.

Of course, none of this undermines the logistical brilliance of the operation or the heroism of those who participated in it.

The story of how bin Laden was tracked down and of the actual military operation should be fascinating to read. I expect it will be a tribute to all of those who participated in the operation, from the president to those who gathered and analyzed all of the information and those who planned and carried out the operation itself.

Politically, the killing should boost the president’s standing immediately, since he delivered good news and will certainly receive credit for the successful result.

Obama now has an extremely useful credential that he can use to deflect Republican criticism on foreign policy and to demonstrate his leadership and decisiveness, two qualities he has had trouble displaying.

I’m certain it isn’t by accident that in his Sunday night address, the president repeatedly emphasized his role in the killing, from directing the CIA to make the “killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al-Qaida,” to his determination that sufficient intelligence existed “to take action” and to the launch “at my direction” of “the targeted operation.”

But the bump in the polls that the president should receive is likely to be short-lived.

While the “sense of national unity” that the president referred to in his Sunday night statement may resurface again for a few days, there is little national unity about whether to raise the debt ceiling, to raise taxes on people earning over $250,000 a year or to curtail entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security for younger Americans. These questions, as well as unemployment, are likely to have a much bigger impact on the next election.

Of course, if the killing of bin Laden does benefit the president short term, it’s possible that he could use that uptick in approval to engage Republicans on domestic economic issues. But that’s far from certain.

I often emphasize the role of unexpected events in American politics. The killing of bin Laden is one such event. But until we get to Election Day in 2012 and are able to look back, we won’t know how many other unexpected events have had an effect on Obama’s political future.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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