WASHINGTON-- Nearly a decade ago, President George W. Bush stood atop the rubble of the World Trade Center and became the sheriff with the bullhorn who vowed to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. But it was left to his successor, known more for faith in diplomacy than force, to Get Our Man.
"Justice has been done," a relieved and proud President Barack Obama said in the East Room late Sunday. Americans had shown their unity and determination by bringing bin Laden to justice with a bullet to the head in a suburb compound of Islamabad, he said.
We need to remember we are one country, the president said, with an unquenchable faith in each other and our future.
It would be nice to think that he is right.
It would be nice to think bin Laden's wanted-dead-or-alive end will be a profound tonic: for faith in our political system, in our presidents, in our military and intelligence operations; for our sense of security; for our sense of our moral, material and even psychological well-being; for our belief in our future and national unity as a people.
The crowd in Lafayette Park near the White House thought so, chanting "USA! USA!" Elsewhere in the country, people lit fireworks, New Yorkers gathered at Ground Zero and college students who were in grade school during the attacks cheered in quadrangles.
Every decent heart is with them and with the families who suffered in the 9/11 attacks and the aftermath.
But this is a salving moment, not a saving one. The world and the country have simply changed too much since Al Qaeda's attack on that bright sunny September day nearly ten years ago.
We are still America, but we are a beleaguered America.
A decade ago, the U.S. Treasury was flush with money; we were in reasonably good spirits about our fate despite a divisive election decided by the Supreme Court.
Ten years later, we are $14 trillion worth of broke. We joke nervously about how the Chinese own us now, or soon will. We are still fighting two and a half wars in the Muslim arc from Libya to Afghanistan, wars we can't afford to fight yet can't quite decide to abandon. The gap between the richest and the rest of us has reached Dickensian proportions. Americans are distrustful to the point of disgust in their political and business leaders, in Congress, in the media. In the rest of the world we remain feared for our might but, for the most part, not well respected even as we try to repair our diplomatic standing.
We are not a garrison state, but security consciousness is a costly and corrosive part of our everyday life.
Still, the short-term sense of satisfaction is real, and restorative, said David Winston, a Republican polltaker not allied with any GOP 2012 candidate. "Killing or capturing Bin Laden has been a top objective for years, and for the president to be able to announce his death is a major accomplishment," he said. "It's a remarkably positive event in and of itself, but no one knows -- I certainly don't -- know where it will lead from here."
For Obama, the death of bin Laden is the best news he's gotten since the American auto companies started turning a profit again.
Two weeks ago, reporters who privately met with the president to talk about the economy -- ironically, in the War Room of the Old Executive Office Building -- were struck by how tired and testy he seemed. At the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night, he told lots of jokes about his birth certificate. The audience laughed with him, but the mere fact that he spent time on the matter was not a sign of strength.
Far more important: The president's standing in the polls was at an ebb, his report card for handling the economy at its lowest position since his inauguration.
Mindful of all of that -- mindful of questions about his effectiveness, his leadership, his commitment -- Obama made the case in his brief address to the nation Sunday that it was HIS decision to refocus U.S. efforts and assets on bin Laden himself. HE had ordered that new renewed focus after his predecessor had dropped the ball in Tora Bora and the years after.
This was the president as effective commander-in-chief, out-sherriffing the man who had claimed the "one riot, one ranger" legacy of the Texas Rangers of the frontier days.
Some of the likely GOP contenders for 2012 were willing to praise not only the results, but the people who made it happen. "Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and our president," said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
White House aides will pocket the accolades, but soon enough, the battle over America's future will resume.
At the center of that battle: What to do about the war in Afghanistan, from which bin Laden launched his attack? In the latest polls, half of the American people disapprove of Obama's handling of that war. A majority of Americans want it ended.
Will the death of bin Laden hasten the time of our departure? Experts doubt we can stabilize the country in any permanent fashion. Richard Haass, a diplomat and Afghanistan expert, expressed deep doubts about the war there.
Led by college students for whom the attacks were the formative experience of their childhoods, people waving banners and American flags filled the streets of Washington and New York to celebrate the news of bin Laden's death. But do they think we need to remain in Afghanistan -- and, on a more limited basis -- in Iraq? Or Libya?
The death of bin Laden won't end that debate; it will intensify it.