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A victory for Obama -- and America

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
President Barack Obama announces the killing of Osama bin Laden from the White House on Sunday night.
President Barack Obama announces the killing of Osama bin Laden from the White House on Sunday night.
  • David Gergen: Americans saluted the news of Osama bin Laden's death
  • He says it immensely strengthens Barack Obama's presidency and his team
  • It's too early to tell what ultimate consequences will be, Gergen says
  • Gergen: Obama was wise to emphasize theme of national unity

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four U.S. presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN) -- It is far too soon to judge the long-term significance of America's successful operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. Will al Qaeda begin to crumble now that its charismatic leader is dead, or will we endure new terrorist attacks, perhaps on U.S. soil?

Will the poisonous relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan now heal, or will there be new strains, especially if it turns out that elements of the Pakistani government were harboring bin Laden? Questions abound.

Yet it is already clear that assuming the facts hold as we know them now, President Barack Obama and his national security team have been enormously strengthened in the near term. The outpouring of joyous crowds on the streets of New York and Washington -- where people were chanting "USA! USA!" -- show that the news not only electrified Americans but brought us together as a people in a way we haven't seen since 9/11.

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With good reason. Bin Laden was not only the most hated man since Hitler but he was also the most hunted man in the world. His killing was unabashedly good news. And Americans have desperately needed some good news: After all, the past decade since 9/11 has not only seen us drawn into wars that drag on and on -- without victory -- but we feel the sting of terrorists every time we enter an airport. Since our economy nearly collapsed, the inability of our leaders to restore jobs and prosperity has also left us feeling increasingly helpless as a a great nation. Finding and killing bin Laden was a huge tonic.

All of this is likely to have important repercussions:

• Sunday night was the best of the Obama presidency, injecting a much needed boost into his credibility as a leader. On the Internet, many were arguing that with bin Laden dead, it is time to bring home the troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. That sentiment is likely to grow. But Obama and Co. are now in a much stronger position to end the wars on their own timetables -- longer or shorter, whatever they see fit.

• Moammar Gadhafi also has more reason to worry now about his personal safety. NATO airstrikes have already come perilously close for him, and now if one were to hit him, Obama is in a much better position to ride out the storm.

• For his national security team, Sunday night was hugely good news, too. Both Leon Panetta and Gen. David Petraeus should have easy confirmations for their new roles -- indeed, they may be festooned with laurels -- and Panetta in particular will carry enhanced credibility into his new role of protecting national security even as he squeezes more out of the Pentagon budget. National Security Council adviser Tom Donilon will also see his stature grow: He shepherded the bin Laden planning through the government. It was one of his first big trials and by all appearances, he passed with flying colors -- and no leaks.

The news not only electrified Americans but brought us together as a people in a way we haven't seen since 9/11.
--David Gergen

• At home, this development comes just as Vice President Joe Biden prepares to begin negotiations this week over raising the national debt ceiling. Neither Republicans nor Democrats will abandon their principles because of bin Laden's dispatch, but this is hardly a propitious moment for Republicans to risk taking the country too close to the edge of a default. Obama was wise to strike a theme of national unity Sunday night in his announcement: It could serve him well in the near-term budget negotiations.

• Of course, folks on the Internet are already proclaiming that Sunday night has sewn up Obama's re-election. "Obama got Osama! Obama got Osama!", the cheer went. But we have seen so many twists and turns in national affairs recently -- and jobs are still scarce and gas prices high -- so that it would be foolhardy to insist that this is a game changer. Remember that President George H.W. Bush kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in a big victory in his third year, and he lost re-election in his fourth year. So it's too early to know. But it is clear that Obama has just increased his clout -- and that will not only bolster a growing war chest but could discourage some Republicans from jumping in.

In short, there are more questions than answers about what impact the killing of bin Laden will have, but we do know this: For both George W. Bush and Obama, catching bin Laden was the big prize. Whoever got him would carry a bigger stick. And that's what Obama has just done. Anyone who now argues that he is too weak as a leader will face the inevitable reply: "Yeah, well look at who got Osama." Obama now walks taller, both at home and overseas.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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