WASHINGTON - President Obama gave a steely defense of his handling of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and his use of it to burnish his reelection credentials a year later, saying Monday that it is appropriate to mark an anniversary that Republicans say is being turned into a campaign bumper sticker.
He then jumped at the chance to portray Republican presidential front-runner 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 reelection 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.
Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs. The terrorist leader was living in a compound far 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."
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-Qaeda 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.