Business MK Column - June

Thu 02 Jun 2011


The decision to retaliate in the face of growing rumours that he was not an American by birth (only in the United States) was a piece of PR genius, coming as it did twenty-four hours after a meeting of national security chiefs which he chaired made the fateful decision to attempt the raid which ended the life of Osama Bin Laden.  That the outcome of such a perilous mission was far from certain must also have been part of his calculations.  What he must have known is that success would also kill off widespread public support for his enemies on the growing, radical right-wing extremes of the Republican Party.

It would be foolish and even insulting to suggest that the two events were calculated purely to enhance his reputation, but as a side-effect he must have been aware that the impact would be devastating.

Consider; had he decided he really was too busy to discuss the place of his birth because of the great events soon to unfold in Pakistan the impact of that moment when he angrily brandished the relevant certificate would have been lost.  What is more, had the mission in Abbottabad gone wrong and instead of the terrorist icon, American Navy Seals had died, what would the implications have been for his reputation then?  Might Americans not have told him he should have been busying himself with affairs of state rather than bizarre whispers about his parentage?  Certainly, if the mission had failed the effect of making the birth certificate revelation after the event would have been lost.

As has been said many times before in this column, Public Relations is about the management of reputation.  The lesson of President Obama’s decisions is that timing is everything.  The two actions taken in conjunction involved significant risk, not just to the lives of those brave servicemen who undertook the assault on the al Qaeda compound, but to the long-term public image of their Commander-in-Chief and his administration.

Twenty-four hours after the raid, the President’s approval rating had leapt from 47% to 56%, a remarkable figure for a mid-term incumbent during severe economic hardship.  Nobody would expect that “Bin Laden bounce” to last forever, certainly not until the next election.  However, when the next election campaign gets underway a vital weapon in the Republican armoury will have been entirely blunted.  In “getting” Bin Laden, the man dubbed by his critics “the lawyer-in-chief” is now remade as a man of action and daring who succeeded in doing in thirty months what his predecessor failed to do in eight years. 

To paraphrase Monty Python, “Well apart from proving he really is an American and taking out Osama Bin Laden, what has Barack Obama ever done for us?”

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