WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama gave a steely defense of his handling of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and his use of it to burnish his re-election credentials a year later, saying Monday that it is appropriate to mark an anniversary that Republicans charge is being turned into a campaign bumper sticker.
He then jumped at the chance to portray presumed Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney as unprepared to make the kind of hard call required to send U.S. forces on that highly risky mission. Without mentioning Romney by name, Obama recommended looking at people's previous statements on the manhunt for the 9/11 mastermind.
Obama's re-election team has seized on a quote from Romney in 2007, when he said it was not worth moving heaven and earth to go after one person. On Monday, Romney said he "of course" would have ordered bin Laden killed, but his campaign criticized Obama for turning the successful death raid to political gain.
"I assume that people meant what they said when they said it," Obama said at a White House news conference. "That's been at least my practice. I said that I'd go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did. If there are others who have said one thing and now suggest they'd do something else, then I'd go ahead and let them explain it."
Obama is using the May 2 anniversary to help maximize a political narrative that portrays him as bold and decisive. Romney has sought to cast Obama as weak and too quick to compromise on other foreign policy matters, including Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Obama and his national security team will be featured in an NBC prime-time special Wednesday night that reconstructs the operation from inside the White House Situation Room. White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan discussed Obama's command of the raid on a Sunday talk show and in a speech Monday.
"The death of bin Laden was our most strategic blow yet against al-Qaida," Brennan said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Credit goes to the special forces who carried out the raid and the intelligence experts who led them to the hideout, Brennan said, "and to President Obama, who gave the order to go in."
Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs. The terror leader was living in a compound outside the capital of Islamabad, having evaded capture for nearly 10 years.
Obama sent in the U.S. forces with no assurance that bin Laden was at the site, leading to a heart-pounding scene in the Situation Room that was captured in one of the most famous photos of Obama's presidency.
"It's unfortunate that President Obama would prefer to use what was a good day for all Americans as a cheap political ploy and an opportunity to distort Gov. Romney's strong policies on the war on terror," Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Monday. "President Obama's feckless foreign policy has emboldened our adversaries, weakened our allies, and threatens to break faith with our military."
Romney was scheduled to appear Tuesday in New York City with firefighters and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani to help mark Wednesday's anniversary of bin Laden's death.
"I hardly think you've seen any excessive celebration taking place here," Obama said at the news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. His voice was taut and his smile thin.
"I think that people, the American people, rightly remember what we as a country accomplished in bringing to justice somebody who killed over 3,000 of our citizens."
In 2007, Romney told The Associated Press that it was not worth "moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."
In a debate days later, he clarified the remark: "We'll move everything to get him. But I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person — Osama bin Laden — because after we get him, there's going to be another and another," Romney said.
Romney was critical of then-candidate Obama's vow to strike al-Qaida targets inside Pakistan if necessary. Obama said at the time that he would be willing to launch military strikes inside Pakistan with or without the government's approval.
Ultimately, that's exactly what Obama did to get bin Laden. The decision outraged Pakistan's U.S.-backed civilian government and fanned anti-U.S. sentiment across the country.
Romney and his advisers suggested Monday that the decision to order the raid was an easy one.
"Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order," Romney said Monday following a campaign appearance in New Hampshire.
Romney probably meant that as a jab at the Democratic record on foreign policy generally, but invoking Carter may actually cloud Romney's message.
Carter demonstrated how dangerous and politically perilous such decisions can be when he ordered an attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran.
The 1980 mission ultimately embarrassed the nation, ending with the death of eight servicemen and the loss of several American helicopters. The hostage crisis lasted more than a year and helped deny Carter a second term.
If the bin Laden raid had gone similarly awry, Obama would have been badly damaged by a military debacle on top of the country's economic woes.
A spokeswoman for Carter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Peoples reported from Portsmouth, N.H.