May 1, 2012— -- President Obama will not officially commemorate the successful mission that killed Osama bin Laden one year ago today, according to the White House.
But his re-election campaign, eager to use the anniversary for political gain, has been trumpeting the 2011 decision to send a covert Navy SEALs team into Pakistan, thrusting it to the forefront of national political debate.
During a press conference at the White House on Monday, Obama defended politicization of the risky bin Laden mission as fair game.
"I said that I'd go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did," Obama told reporters in the East Room, reminding them of a campaign promise he had made in 2008.
"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," he added -- an oblique reference to rival Mitt Romney.
In a 2007 interview, the former Massachusetts governor said, "It's not worth moving heaven and earth, spending billions of dollars just to capture one person."
He also called "ill-timed" and "ill-considered" then-candidate Obama's promise to approve unilateral strikes against terrorist targets inside Pakistan if presented with actionable intelligence.
In web ads and stump speeches, Team Obama has been driving home the contrast with the presumptive GOP nominee, making bin Laden's death a cornerstone of their pitch for a second term.
"In broad campaign terms, their strategy attempts to pull the rug out from under the Republicans on foreign policy," said Steve Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and veteran of several presidential administrations.
"Historically, Republicans have won on the argument that Democrats are weak on national security, when in fact, as Obama's decision showed, they would often have done exactly the same thing," Hess said.
But in the case of bin Laden, Democratic strategists argue, Obama went further than a President Romney ever would have -- a claim that has sparked a fierce fight over a hypothetical what-might-have-been.
Former President Bill Clinton subtly raised questions about Romney in a new Obama campaign video supporting the raid, while Vice President Joe Biden has publicly tweaked Romney for policies that he says would have left General Motors dead and bin Laden alive.
"Quite frankly, Mitt Romney said it was a foolish thing to do a few years ago," senior Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said Sunday on "Meet the Press." "And, look, there's a difference in the roles they would play in commander-in-chief, and I certainly think that's fair game."
Romney said Monday that he would "of course" have authorized the strike on bin Laden's Abbotobad compound if presented with intelligence Obama received, and argued that "even Jimmy Carter would have given that order."
Romney's campaign also lashed out at the president for using "a good day for all Americans as a cheap political ploy."
"As I said at the time when the announcement was made about Osama bin Laden having been killed, I congratulated the president and the intelligence community as well of course SEAL Team 6," said Romney in an interview Tuesday on "CBS This Morning.
"I acknowledged the president's success and think he had every right to take credit for him having ordered that attack," he said. "At the same time I think it was very disappointing for the president to try and make this a political item by suggesting I wouldn't have ordered such a raid, of course I would have."
Obama's use of the bin Laden decision as weapon to attack Romney has drawn fire from the right and the left.
Arianna Huffington of the left-leaning Huffington Post said Monday that turning the bin Laden "assassination" into a campaign ad is "one of the most despicable things you can do."
Sen. John McCain, Obama's 2008 challenger and Romney surrogate, blasted the president, saying he should be ashamed.
"Shame on Barack Obama for diminishing the memory of September 11th and the killing of Osama bin Laden by turning it into a cheap political attack ad," McCain said last week. "This is the same President who once criticized Hillary Clinton for invoking bin Laden 'to score political points."
Still, Team Obama has shown no signs of backing down, insisting -- in spite of Obama's pledge not to "spike the football" -- that the decision to authorize the top secret 2011 raid merits praise in the public space.
"I hardly think that you've seen any excessive celebration taking place here," Obama said Monday.
"The American people rightly remember what we as a country accomplished in bringing to justice somebody who killed over 3,000 of our citizens, and it's a mark of the excellence of our intelligence teams and our military teams, a political process that worked," he said. "And I think for us to use that time for some reflection, to give thanks to those who participated, is entirely appropriate, and that's what's been taking place."
Still, while debate bin Laden political will continue to swirl, polls show most Americans remain fixated on the economy as the key issue for November.
A majority -- 51 percent -- of Americans in a January 2012 ABC News/Washington Post poll said that the economy was the single most important issue in their choice for President. A paltry 2 percent picked the issue of terrorism/national security.
Eight years ago, in the first presidential campaign after the 9/11 attacks, 22 percent of Americans said terrorism was their top concern. And, while the economy was important to their vote, just 26 percent said it was their top issue in the 2004 campaign.
"This is going to be an election that's not decided or even influenced on international relations or national security. It's all about the economy," Hess said. "Unless there's some unanticipated consequence which brings it back to that very clearly -- such as another terrorist attack."
"In that case, the president can act and the opposition just stands there. It could be a good thing for Obama," he said.