WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama's reported order of a risky covert operation to kill Osama bin Laden delivered a huge political payoff as he sets his sights on a second term as America's commander-in-chief.
The reportedly recent elimination of the al Qaeda mastermind, which eluded his predecessor George W. Bush, may also offer Obama a deep well of political capital and could transform perceptions of his leadership and national security credentials.
Within minutes of news emerging that bin Laden was dead late Sunday night, a huge crowd started gathering at the White House, as people cheered and chanted “USA, USA” while waving US flags in a scene of rare euphoria.
The commotion, heard inside the White House, will likely come as a huge morale boost to Obama's team, after two years of almost constant crises, at home and abroad which have at times threatened to overwhelm his presidency.
The death of bin Laden also represented a badly needed illustration that Obama is comfortable and authoritative when wielding US power, and is certain to enhance the president's authority among fellow leaders on the world stage.
But given the fickle mood swings of modern politics, and continuing challenging economic conditions, even a victory as huge as this one is unlikely to assure Obama's re-election next year alone.
American elections usually turn on the economy, and given the fact that voters feel they have yet to feel any impact from the US recovery, Obama appears to be stuck on dangerous political ground.
Only 46 per cent of Americans said they approved of Obama's performance in a CBS/New York Times poll last month, with the sluggish economic rebound the major concern of voters in every opinion survey.
Yet, whatever happens ahead of November 2012, Obama will now be remembered by history as the US leader who got bin Laden, and his legacy was on Sunday significantly enhanced in just a few hours.
Details of the daring raid on bin Laden's fortified compound in Pakistan are still sketchy, but US officials said it involved special forces operating out of helicopters after an intelligence operation that lasted many months.
Had the reported raid have gone wrong, Obama would have been certain to face an avalanche of criticism that would have been sure to further hammer his sagging approval ratings and fuel criticisms of his leadership style.
Comparisons with one-term Democratic president Jimmy Carter, who's political credibility was dented when a helicopter-led raid to rescue hostages from Iran went wrong, would have been irresistible and widespread.
In the event, Obama's allies will now paint him as a shrewd, courageous and decisive leader, who has despatched America's public enemy number one.
Democratic congressman Gary Ackerman told CNN that the operation was the “'mission accomplished' moment that President Bush only fantasized (about).””This is one of the biggest deals in the last 100 years.
“I think it's put the president in a political position that makes him the commander-in-chief of an almost flawless mission of monumental proportions that have unbelievable ramifications.”
Republican Congressman Peter King, who has often criticized Obama on national security, also praised the president.
“Many things could have gone wrong, and yet, the president had the guts to go forward with it,” he told CNN.
“It's a brilliantly carried out operation. The president of the United States, I salute him for carrying out one of the greatest achievements I believe in American history.”
The killing of bin Laden will likely snatch away one of the most potent Republican weapons in the 2012 election — the narrative that Obama is a weak and indecisive leader who is constantly apologizing for his country.
It will make it much harder for his potential Republican 2012 opponent to argue that Obama is soft on terrorism, or is a poor commander-in-chief.
Analysts will also be watching to see how the death of bin Laden plays into Obama's determination to begin bringing American troops home from Afghanistan.
The Afghan war is increasingly unpopular, and the death of bin Laden may prompt many voters to wonder exactly why America is set to remain in the country for years to come — now its public enemy number one is gone.
Obama's personal political fortunes could also be badly impacted, should remnants of al Qaeda or other extremist groups successfully carry out revenge attacks against American interests.