10/20/2011 05:53 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

Gaddafi's Death Presents Obama Campaign With Delicate Challenge

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It is, perhaps, a crass question to ask, but it's one that is already being bandied about in the upper echelons of President Barack Obama's campaign reelection staff. In light of the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and other al Qaeda associates, just how does the president go about campaigning on these achievements?

Aides to Obama refuse to publicly entertain the query, arguing that it's not in the president's blood to interject politics into national security matters and it would be counterproductive to U.S. foreign policy to do so.

That's a smokescreen.

Obama advisers and those who serve as consultants to his reelection team have considered how to effectively highlight the president's foreign policy successes in the context of a campaign. The general consensus seems to be that his track record can be leveraged in two ways. First and most basically, it can be used to nullify attacks from Republicans. When, for example, Mitt Romney ripped into Obama's stewardship of foreign affairs during a high-profile speech several weeks ago, campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt responded in not-so-subtle-fashion.

“Obama has degraded al Qaeda and dealt huge blows to its leadership, including eliminating Osama bin Laden, ended the war in Iraq, promoted our security in Afghanistan while winding down our commitment in a responsible way and strengthened American leadership around the world,” he said.

As Tad Devine, the long-time Democratic operative who as a consultant to John Kerry's 2004 campaign found out what it's like to be on the receiving end of national security-related campaign attacks, noted: "I think it is the trump suit. And when you have trump in a card game, you play it whenever you want ... and you win."

Yet Obama's reelection team also plans to use his foreign policy successes to improve and solidify perceptions about his effectiveness and his character Appearing on "Morning Joe" this week, David Axelrod, the president's chief reelection strategist, was questioned about Obama's preparedness for the job.

"[M]aybe you should go ask Osama bin Laden if he thought he was prepared," he replied.

"It is a character issue," explained Anita Dunn, former Communications Director for the Obama White House and an adviser to the re-election campaign, "it is a presidential attribute issue, and it is a leadership issue."

As Dunn argues, the killing of bin Laden and the death of Gaddafi provide effective, thematic counterpoints both to Democrats who question Obama's resolve and Republicans who question his results. Past elections have shown that the ability to assume the image of a powerful commander-in-chief is a basic litmus test for voters. In that regard, the anti-terrorism developments of the past six months offer the president an opportunity to subvert the common theme that the Republican Party is the one that's tougher on defense.

But America is in a vastly different place than it was in 2004, which was the last time that national security issues dominated a presidential election, or in 2006, when the Iraq War was a focus of the midterm elections. And despite the many optical benefits that can be derived from the president's national security victories, Democrats still are hesitant to play that particular card.

It's not because party officials bemoaned George W. Bush for intertwining politics and national security.

"I think they can talk about it and talk about it without reluctance," said Devine, when asked if Democrats were worried about being accused of hypocrisy.

Rather, it's because not everyone in the Democratic Party is enamored with the Obama doctrine. The president may have achieved his stated objectives of drawing down the Iraq War, ending torture and attacking terrorist figures where they reside, but he has also failed to close Guantanamo Bay, left Bush's judicial temperament in place, and pursued an unpopular course in Afghanistan. His handling of the conflict in Libya also had its detractors, who questioned the cost and legality of U.S. involvement.

"Obama has a delicate challenge because probably the biggest straight out disagreements he has with his own base -- not their disappointments on the public option versus the rest of health care reform, which are shades of degree -- the biggest quantitative disagreement the base has with Obama is the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan and the continuation of Bush's national security policies," said Dan Gerstein, who grew intimately aware with base-driven backlash over foreign policy as a top adviser to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.). "He has to be cognizant of that in a more pronounced way than in the 2008 campaign when the base was so riled up and eager to purge the Bush years that they gave Obama a pass."

For all the debate over how and to what extent Obama should tout bin Laden and Gaddafi's deaths over the course of the campaign, there remains lingering doubt whether his national security credentials will even help him, given the other challenges currently facing the country.

"If it weren't for the economy, this would all be a powerful boost to the president's reelection," said Bob Shrum, the longtime Democratic adviser who wrote Kerry's memorable 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, in which the Senator said he was "reporting for duty."

"[Obama] put to rest the idea that Democrats are weak on national security," he added. "But to quote Al Gore, elections are not a reward for past performance ... I don't think in any event [Obama] would be able to say, 'Vote for me because I've done this.' But people would get a sense of his strength of character and all the rest of it which I think will help a lot."

Indeed, it's a bad bit of political fortune that the president has made such strides in his foreign policy agenda at a time when few voters seem to actually be paying attention. But during a time of deep unemployment and concerns about the country's fiscal trajectory, there is little room to focus on much else.

"It is impressive what he has done on national security -- even bin Laden alone -- but also deft in the way he has handled the Arab Spring, Libya, getting out of Iraq was a big deal," said Jim Gerstein, a Democratic pollster and strategist who has done extensive work on national security and foreign policy polling. "Politically, [the timing] is unfortunate. You just can't understate how hard it is economically for people right now."

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