Obama’s moral understanding vs. Bush’s swagger

Watching the coverage of President Obama’s speech about the killing of Osama bin Laden, I find myself in agreement with various friends (on Facebook and elsewhere) who have expressed uneasiness with the crowing over this development.  I’m uneasy with the celebration of an assassination, leery of reprisals, and put off by the tackiness of citizens singing “We Are the Champions” in response to a bloody shootout.

I thought Obama’s speech framed the killing with great care and sobriety. I think what we saw in Obama’s speech was the President taking personal responsibility—and, yes, credit—for bin Laden’s death. It was the statement of a President who understood what he had done and why.

Some have pointed out that yesterday was the anniversary of George W. Bush’s infamous speech on the aircraft carrier in front of the unfortunately premature “Mission Accomplished” banner.

I think an even more interesting contrast, however, is with this clip of Bush talking about bin Laden just six months after 9/11:

Bush’s casual swagger and smirking seem so painfully inadequate, so utterly different from Obama’s gravitas and moral understanding.

Bush mocks the idea of “focusing on one person” and proudly notes that he doesn’t spend that much time thinking about bin Laden. He asserts that those who worry about bin Laden don’t understand the “scope of the mission”—and that terror is so much bigger than one person.

From this vantage point, this clip seems to crystallize the tragedy of the Bush years: the President’s blithe expansion of “the mission” beyond al-Qaeda and bin Laden; the loss of focus that led us into two wars in which we are still enmeshed.

And though I’m uncomfortable with the triumphalist “flash mobs” chanting U-S-A and waving flags in celebration of America’s killing someone, I’m made hopeful by the intelligence and subtlety of Obama’s announcement and by the fact that he not only understood from the beginning of his Presidency how important it really was (to the American public, if nothing else) to bring down Osama bin Laden, but also was focused enough to make it happen.

  • MG1

    Hi Frank,

    You captured my thoughts exactly in your piece. Thanks for writing it.

  • Arthur Lieber

    I think this is another terrific post from Frank. I agree that the President showed the understanding and class that the former resident in the White House did not.

    However, the “USA, USA” shouting outside the White House strikes me as being somewhere on a continuum between absolutely immature to potential provocative. I thought that I was watching “Friday Night Lights’ with Wolf Blitzer acting like the football team’s carnival barker, the car salesman Buddy. I hope that at some time the president can address that, although it will be politically risky. One other thing. His statesman ship seems to be tainted when he says “kill” before “capture” re. bin Laden. I wish that 9-11 had been dealt with as a criminal case rather than a national act of aggression. In a criminal case, you don’t execute before you convict. But thanks to Frank for being the “first on my block” to address the issues.

  • Josh R

    Mr. Kovarik,
    Though your article was true to a degree, I believe that you exaggerated both presidents’ actions.
    Also, it seems like you think that Obama is responsible for getting bin Laden. Obama did almost nothing besides give the orders. It was our intelligence personel that really did the work here. They were the ones who found out where he was and formulated a plan to kill him. Bush should even get credit if you believe that Obama should.
    Finally, I agree with you that celebrating over death is very disturbing, I, as many other Americans are celebrating over the effects of his death rather than the death itself.

  • Frank Kovarik

    Thanks for the comment, Josh. I do believe that Obama is responsible for getting bin Laden. Part of my point in this piece is that Obama made the capture or killing of bin Laden a priority in his Presidency, as he told Katie Couric he would even before he took office (http://bit.ly/j9vVYc). He made it a priority, and it happened. As exemplified in the clip above, Bush did not think it was important to get bin Laden, and it didn’t happen during his Presidency. Bush’s priorities were elsewhere—getting Saddam Hussein and expanding the “war on terror” into a wide-ranging and open-ended struggle, which I think was a terrible miscalculation.

    Obama, by contrast, made bin Laden a priority. As you note, he ordered the killing. He therefore took responsibility for it—a moral responsibility, most importantly, and one that I myself am not entirely comfortable with, as it seems quite close to revenge through violence, rather than the type of justice we claim as Americans to believe in. But, setting that aside, it should be remembered that Obama put his Presidency on the line in making the order to kill bin Laden. If the mission had ended badly, the political repercussions could have been disastrous. Obama would have been held responsible, and rightly so—just as Bush should be held responsible for the disasters of his Presidency.

  • Josh R

    Also, after watching this video, I don’t think that Bush’s “smirks” are out of place. His overall vibe doesn’t seem that bad. Though they may come off as bad, I don’t think that they are meant to be.

    I highly suggest reading my review of the bin Laden military action here.


  • Josh R

    Though my opinion may be different, you do have a very strong argument, and I commend you for that. I just tend to like to credit the military who made the plan and executed it. While Obama was out on the golf course that morning, which IS NOT a bad thing, there were people busy planning the attack.

    Also, from a political standpoint, I don’t believe that the consequences of a failed mission would be that disastrous. There have been failed missions before, and the consequences were not disastrous politically.

    I must admit though that this article reminds me of Huck’s struggle between his deformed conscience and his sound heart. After listening to you for a couple of semesters, I was able to tell which article was yours by the title. Thank you for writing this and putting your ideas out there. I an just happy that at least you’re well informed.

  • Bill Ford

    I just discovered this site. WOW so much bull shit, and distortion of facts. No wonder our kids are failing. Obama want’s 100,000 new teachers. Great as long as he replaces the liberal teachers, we have now. I am discussed with those teaching, a progressive agenda to our kids. Teach them the three R’s, and move over for improvement. I will check back, just to see if this is allowed to remain posted.