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How Obama Should Spend Post-bin Laden Capital

Tuesday, May 10, 2011 - 03:54 PM

President Obama has had a good run these past few weeks. His successes ranged from the ridiculous - releasing his long-form birth certificate, to the deadly serious - finding and killing Osama bin Laden. The former didn't put to rest the "birther" insanity, but it change the game. If you still insist he isn't American, you are in an increasingly narrow fringe, and Republican candidates who cater to that fringe are going to look extreme themselves. Bin Laden changed the game as well: Tracking down America's Most Wanted shows that Obama's national security team and intelligence operations are strong, and that he can now run on - not from - national security issues.

Obama's critics and rivals lost out in these two rounds, but the more important question is whether Americans won. Without question, there are victories of the spirit. Bin Laden's death has freed Americans from his haunting of our collective imagination. For the families of 9/11 victims, it offers some measure of justice. For Americans everywhere, it felt like we finally hit back in the right way for those atrocities a decade ago.

So Americans are feeling better, stronger, more confident - now can the President pivot and funnel that national mood into some practical change? After his re-election, President Bush famously boasted: "I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and I intend to spend it."

He went on to try to privatize Social Security.

Hopefully, our current President - who has now earned his own capital - intends to spend it on more productive pursuits. If he need some guidance, here are two ideas.

The first is the more obvious one, which Americans hold their breath in hopes he'll pursue: Bringing the troops home. Our men and women are in Afghanistan and Iraq for reasons that long ago drifted away. While the forces in Iraq have a supposed deadline, the Afghanistan occupation threatens to meander with no real end. There is no way to claim that their actions are a direct, efficient and effective front in the "war on terror."

Unfortunately, our unclear mission makes it harder to know when that mission is accomplished. What we do know, though, is that we killed the man behind 9/11. We know that our intensive intelligence work was more effective at that mission than our massive military operation.

And we know that Americans are feeling some level of closure.

President Obama can make this symbolic victory a practical one by using this achievement to dramatically change course in Afghanistan - a move that he may have signaled by appointing Panetta to Defense and Petraeus to the CIA. When our troops come home, that will truly rejuvenate the American spirit - as well as an American economy that has buckled with the cost of this unnecessary war. The President would suddenly have funds again to invest in job creation at home - and a celebratory nation welcoming home our men and women.

There is a second, less-obvious issue deserving of the President's capital: Energy independence. President Obama has national security credibility - and should talk about energy independence as a national security issue. As long as we are addicted to Middle East oil, it will distort our geopolitical role in that region and wreak havoc on energy prices at home.

From conservation to alternative energy sources, there are measures the President can take. The energy bill that died last session had Republican support for a cap-and-trade scheme, the EPA could be more aggressive in monitoring companies' carbon footprint, and increasing automobile efficiency standards can power the American auto industry.

While there will always be global warming skeptics - just like there will always be birth certificate skeptics - there are also diverse allies that can be united on this effort. And by talking about it not only as an environmental issue, but as a security issue, the President can enlist new support and push an important agenda for this country.

Our troops coming home would re-energize our country. Energy reforms would strengthen our economy and security. And while neither is easy, it also wasn't easy finding Osama bin Laden. We did that, and the country cheered. The president can turn those cheers into a clamor for sustained and significant change.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."

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