It’s always satisfying when hoary old national stereotypes suddenly prove to be true. On Friday, the British were brought together as a nation by a royal wedding. On Sunday morning, Poland was brought together as a nation by the beatification of the former Pope. On Sunday night – and well into Monday morning – my fellow Americans were brought together as a nation by their delight in the execution of Osama bin Laden. You sing God Save the Queen, they say a “hail Mary”, we chant “USA, USA”. And all of us wave our national flags.
Of course there are differences. The royal wedding was planned down to the last millisecond, whereas the demonstrators who poured into the streets of New York and Washington after President Obama’s announcement appeared spontaneously. The first seem to have arrived from George Washington University, which is not far from the White House. Students were awake, studying for final exams, when they heard the news and rushed down the street. Others saw them on television or on Facebook and rapidly followed suit.
That crowd was, in other words, a flash mob – or, in the more precise words of a talk show hostess standing beside the White House at midnight, a “bipartisan flash mob”. And in the word “bipartisan” you have the key to the political significance of the whole event.
Think back, if you can, to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center: for many weeks, the citizens of the United States – Democrats, Republicans, independents – were unified in sorrow, patriotism and anger. That sense of unity persisted for a long time: It was enough to guarantee Congressional, media and political support for the invasion of Afghanistan, as well as for the invasion of Iraq. It convinced many young people, of all social classes, to join the military. It probably explains why George W Bush was re-elected in 2004.
Obama tried to revive that sense of unity in 2008: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” he once famously declared. But it didn’t work. The wars, the financial crisis and the subsequent recession had chipped away at our non-partisan, post-September 11 patriotism until there was practically nothing left of it. The Democrats came to loathe the Iraq war. The Republicans came to loathe the war’s opponents.
Far from unifying in the wake of Obama’s election, the parties split apart further and the public became polarised, thanks in part to a new breed of fanatical talk-show hosts, bloggers and political celebrities who realised that they could make money, attract viewers and possibly win votes with extremist and even outrageous rhetoric. Led by Sarah Palin, they began to compete with one another and soon ceased merely to criticise the president: instead, they set out to prove that he was illegitimate – that he was not even American.
Weirdly, this surge of political nastiness hit its absurd peak only last week, when President Obama finally felt compelled to release the original, long-form version of his birth certificate, proving he had in fact been born in Hawaii, not in Kenya. He had already provided a notarised copy, newspaper reports from the time, and the testimony of people who knew his mother. But that was not good enough for (depending on which polls you believe) up to 25 per cent of Americans, and a much larger percentage of Republicans.
In the wake of this operation, they’ll have to think twice. After all, George W Bush – a cowboy-boot wearing, slang-talking, wood-chopping American – called for the US to haul in bin Laden, “dead or alive”. But Barack Obama – whose middle name is “Hussein”, whose surname rhymes with “Osama”, and who definitely does not come from Texas – is the one who actually did it.
More to the point, the nature of the operation speaks well of him. He has been part of the planning for months. He personally authorised the special forces operation a few days ago. We don’t know all the details yet, but according to the official version of events, the raid took some 40 minutes, few civilians were injured and no Americans were killed. In other words, the whole thing appears to have been handled with efficiency and competence of a kind we no longer automatically expect from Americans.
Amidst the celebrations which will follow, some of the “birthers” will be surely be forced to concede that Obama must really be American after all. Even his more mainstream critics might feel more warmly about him. Both Liberal America and Conservative America will be equally pleased to hear the announcement, after all: Osama bin Laden is one of the few things we all agree about. Briefly, if only for a day or two, we will feel like the United States of America once again.
Briefly, we’ll also feel like winners. As the British well know, it’s no fun to be told constantly that your nation is in decline, that your economy is sinking and that your leadership of the world is in jeopardy. Every once in a while, it’s nice to hear that your president achieved something concrete, that your armed forces are efficient, and that your security services aren’t as clueless as they seem. Besides, it’s much more fun to celebrate in front of the White House or Ground Zero than to sit at home and watch the price of oil rise.
Unfortunately for the president, this wave of enthusiasm comes too early to affect his political prospects directly: November 2012, the next election day, is still far away, and by the time it rolls around, Osama bin Laden will belong to the distant political past, overshadowed by other crises, maybe even other terrorist events or military disasters. Nevertheless, the timing of this announcement comes at a critical stage in the American political cycle. Very soon, those Republicans who intend to challenge Mr Obama will have to announce their candidacies and launch serious campaigns. The first primary elections will be held next February, nine months from now, which doesn’t leave much time for polling and fund-raising.
At the moment, the field is notably weak: Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, a couple of uninspiring governors; Rick Santorum, a recently defeated ex-Senator; Newt Gingrich, a long-ago retired Congressman, and Michelle Bachmann, a Tea Partying congresswoman. There are also a host of cranks, as usual, among them Donald Trump and a pizza magnate named Herman Cain. In the burst of enthusiasm which will follow the bin Laden announcement, this weak field might well get weaker. If it seems like the president might become popular again, skittish potential candidates will think twice about throwing their hats into the ring. And if they don’t make the decision quickly, it will be too late.
The timing matters in another way, too: The tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks is this year. On that day, it will be impossible to avoid asking what has been achieved – and what has not been achieved – in the decade since al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the lists which will be composed, there will be many failures – alongside one singular, notable success. That will be Obama’s success – and the “anti-war” Democrats’ success as well.