Barack Obama's awkward debate references to Osama bin Laden

Anyone who watched the Democratic convention knows that the Obama campaign is championing the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of the administration's signature achievements -- a strategy best summed up by Vice President Joe Biden's reminder that "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive."

But it hasn't been easy for the president to mention the al Qaeda leader's death during the first two  presidential debates, which have focused largely on domestic policy, and that's made for some odd moments. During Tuesday night's town hall, for example, an audience member complained about the rising cost of living:

QUESTION: Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012? I'm not that optimistic as I was in 2012. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.

OBAMA: Well, we've gone through a tough four years. There's no doubt about it. But four years ago, I told the American people and I told you I would cut taxes for middle class families. And I did. I told you I'd cut taxes for small businesses, and I have.

I said that I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we'd refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda's leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead.

After listing several other successes on the domestic front, Obama conceded that people are still struggling despite his achievements and circled back to the original prompt about accomplishments by stating that "the commitments I've made, I've kept." But the mentions of Iraq, al Qaeda, and bin Laden still seemed out of place in response to a question about economic struggles.

Obama made an even more bizarre reference to bin Laden in the first debate, when he fielded a question about partisan gridlock. The president appeared to suggest that he'd pursued bin Laden because it would strengthen the middle class:

But look, my philosophy has been I will take ideas from anybody, Democrat or Republican, as long as they're advancing the cause of making middle-class families stronger and giving ladders of opportunity into the middle class. That's how we cut taxes for middle-class families and small businesses. That's how we cut a trillion dollars of spending that wasn't advancing that cause. That's how we signed three trade deals into law that are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world. That's how we repealed "don't ask, don't tell." That's how we ended the war in Iraq, as I promised, and that's how we're going to wind down the war in Afghanistan. That's how we went after al-Qaida and bin Laden.

As my colleague Josh Rogin notes, this language about ending the war in Iraq, weakening al Qaeda, and killing bin Laden is part of Obama's stump speech. But the past two debates suggest that the president reflexively invokes the wording whenever there's an opening -- however far afield -- to discuss his accomplishments. Luckily for Obama, the third and final presidential debate will focus on foreign policy. That should provide more than enough opportunities to work in a bin Laden reference or two. 


Is Mitt Romney's energy plan really all that different than Bush's?

In one of the most interesting exchanges of Tuesday night's presidential debate, a town hall participant asked Mitt Romney what distinguished him from George W. Bush. The GOP candidate returned to his five-point plan for the economy, noting that, unlike the previous Republican president, he would balance the budget, champion small business, expand trade with Latin America, crack down aggressively on Chinese trade practices, and secure energy independence for North America:

We can now, by virtue of new technology actually get all the energy we need in North America without having to go to the the Arabs or the Venezuelans or anyone else. That wasn't true in [Bush's] time, that's why my policy starts with a very robust policy to get all that energy in North America -- become energy secure.

Never mind that, as Gregg Carlstom pointed out, the criticisms of Bush didn't really revolve around his failure to strike Latin American free trade agreements or get tough on Beijing. When it came to energy policy, Romney expanded on his plan elsewhere in the debate, promising to increase manufacturing jobs and achieve energy independence "within eight years" by approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, increasing offshore drilling, granting more licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federals waters, and embracing a mix of energy sources including oil, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewables.

The issue is, Bush echoed Romney's overarching theme -- reducing America's dependence on OPEC by a date certain through technology and a variety of promising energy sources -- in his 2006 State of the Union address, which came two years before Bush lifted an executive ban on offshore oil drilling:

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources. And we are on the threshold of incredible advances.

So tonight I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative-a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy-to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within 6 years.

Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.

Romney's plan, which promises North American energy independence in less than a decade and builds on research such as Citi's Energy 2020 report, is certainly more ambitious than Bush's. But is the Republican candidate really advocating a clean break with Bush on energy policy? Or did he simply dodge a tough question by pivoting back to his five-point plan?

John Moore/Getty Images