Obama seeks to parlay bin Laden’s demise into expanded defense cuts

Posted: May 11, 2011 in Money, Politics, US News

washingtonexaminer.com
Brian Hughes
May 9, 2011

With the death of Osama bin Laden firmly cementing President Obama’s commander-in-chief credentials, the White House is eager to parlay the triumph into leverage for widespread defense cuts that have been met with stiff resistance from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

At a minimum, the raid on bin Laden’s compound fortifies the president’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July, and softens Republican backlash against scaling back an increasingly unpopular war.

Yet, those calling for a fundamental shift in how the United States funds the military — arguing that the current model reflects an outdated, massive boots-on-the-ground approach — say this can be a turning point for a push that has long been deemed political suicide.

“The reason Democrats had trouble in the past is they were perceived as weak on defense,” said Lawrence Korb, assistant defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan. “Getting rid of public enemy No. 1 dispels that. Obama can say we’re going to do this and has the credibility to back it up.”

On the heels of widespread cuts instituted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama is proposing $400 billion more in defense spending reductions over the next 12 years. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, the Pentagon budget has skyrocketed from just over $300 billion annually to about $700 billion this year.

However, some predict that even a political victory of last week’s magnitude will carry little weight with Republicans, who see little advantage in reducing the military budget and defense projects in their home districts.

“While this gives him some credibility on defense issues, it’s hard to see how it’s going to make a major difference,” said University of Wisconsin political science professor Kenneth Mayer. “It’s not like Obama can walk into [House Speaker John] Boehner’s office and say, ‘We killed Osama bin Laden, you can trust me.’ That’s not how it works.”

And as Obama’s predecessors have learned, political capital tends to dissipate quickly.

After Sept. 11, President George W. Bush’s job approval soared to levels never before achieved in modern politics. Yet Bush had difficulty persuading a Republican-controlled Congress to pass many of his political priorities, including an overhaul of Social Security.

Others say that, if anything, bin Laden’s death will be used to resist short-term defense cuts.

“I’m not so sure the president will use this to push for those cuts,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “I think he’s going to be a little hawkish and try to prevent people from rushing for the exits.”

Though many Republicans oppose Obama’s proposed cuts in defense spending, more of those on the right are embracing some form of defense cuts as a part of a broader plan to reduce the budget deficit.

“The president is on a high rise as he spikes the ball and pumps his fist,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. “He could get what he wants.”

Yet, Wheeler said the president’s proposal left much to be desired, noting that his proposed cuts are only about a third of what his own deficit commission recommended.

“If you propose nothing, it’s not hard to achieve,” he said, calling the Obama cuts “completely pathetic.”

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