After nearly ten years of talk about tracking down Osama bin Laden, it's finally happened. And it's amazing how different the world suddenly feels -- at least for the moment.
In announcing that bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces, President Obama said that, by last week, he'd determined "that we had enough intelligence to take action."
And so he did. He took action. And that concrete act -- and the success of the raid that followed -- has had an immediate psychological impact on the country.
"It's really just nice for the United States to accomplish something we've been trying to do," Scott Talan, a professor at American University, told Slate's Dave Weigel outside the White House, where a crowd had gathered to celebrate the good news.
The professor is right. Coming at a time in which the country is all but paralyzed politically, in which 70 percent feel the country is on the wrong track, and in which real solutions to our problems seem beyond us, there is tremendous spillover power in this accomplishment. Can this real and tangible victory produce conditions that can lead to more successes?
Obama himself rightly hearkened back to "the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11," and declared that the bin Laden mission was "a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people."
And on Monday, the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg noted the new "positive tone" from leading Republicans about the president, while cautioning that "it remained to be seen to what extent [bin Laden's] killing -- dramatic as it was -- would reorder the political landscape."
True. But much of that depends on what the president does with this rare and unexpected moment of unity. And the question got me thinking: what are some actionable and achievable victories the president could move on to next, some things that, while obviously lacking the enormity of killing bin Laden, both sides agree on and talk about, but aren't acting on?
Here is one small example: oil and gas subsidies.
This is clearly not the most important issue in the world -- dealing with unemployment and the economy must be job one on the domestic front -- but it's a real one, and the conditions for action were growing ripe even before the president's announcement on Sunday.
Indeed, Obama had made a direct call for the end of these subsidies in his State of the Union speech in January. "I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies," the president said. "I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own." We could take the money we spend "subsidizing yesterday's energy," and "invest in tomorrow's."
Obama returned to the issue in his weekly address the day before he made his spectacular bin Laden announcement: "I do have a problem with the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies we've been handing out to oil and gas companies -- to the tune of $4 billion a year."
What's more, you don't have to connect very many dots to find a national security angle in all this, either. As Glenn Hurowitz points out in Grist, our continued reliance on oil is what funds many terrorists around the world:
If this is to be the beginning of the end for al Qaeda and repressive governments everywhere, we have to make it our national mission not just to hunt down terrorist leaders, but also to wipe out the single greatest source of their money and power: oil.
Plus, ending the subsidies is a free-market solution that would again put the government on the side of justice. It would show the American people that government is on their side, capable of taking concrete action in the public interest.
While obviously there isn't the level of unity about ending these subsidies as there was about going after bin Laden, increasingly it is an issue that is moving into the beyond-left-and-right category.
In fact, since making his proposal in January, the president has gotten some prominent company on the other side of the aisle. This was GOP House Budget Chair Paul Ryan's answer when Christiane Amanpour asked if he would "back ending subsidies to oil companies":
Oh, yes. I think we should clean up all those loopholes. And don't forget, there's a lot of corporate welfare spending that is in our budget put in there by both political parties because of powerful interests. We want to get rid of all that.
This came on the heels of an interview with Bloomberg TV, in which the congressman said he favored ending the subsidies because he didn't "want the government to be picking winners and losers in the tax code or through spending."
And he's being joined by Republican members of both houses. Last month, Sen. Mark Kirk came out against the subsidies, telling C-SPAN (and echoing the president) that the oil companies are "doing just fine on their own."
And a spokesperson for Rep. Reid Ribble from Wisconsin issued this statement: "He thinks that all energy subsidies should be thoroughly reviewed in this upcoming budget. He believes energy companies should stand on their own without subsidy."
Ribble's colleague from Georgia, Rep. Tom Graves, while not calling for a direct halt, admitted the subsidies are "a manipulation of the market place."
Ending oil and gas subsidies won't remake our energy policy overnight. But continuing these egregious subsidies to companies making billions of dollars in profits counteracts any free-market incentive they'd have to develop alternatives -- and thus only lengthens the amount of time we're subsidizing repressive governments around the world.
The mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice was a great victory and a testament to the brave soldiers who carried it out. And it came at a time when such clear and present victories no longer seemed possible. But there's no reason why this sense of tangible achievement must end in Abbottabad. There are so many issues -- some small, some big, but all worthwhile, tangible and concrete -- that we agree on. Or at least that we could agree on, if only a president with newfound political capital were to spend some of it to get a few more victories under our collective belt.
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