FORT STEWART, Georgia (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s campaign sought to make the death of Osama bin Laden a central part of the U.S. presidential election on Friday with a video that questioned whether Republican rival Mitt Romney would have made the same call to approve the mission that killed the al Qaeda leader.
Obama, a Democrat, was praised by leaders from both parties for approving the risky May 2011 mission that killed bin Laden, but he has tread carefully with the issue in campaign events.
His re-election campaign embraced the issue fully on Friday. It put out a video that touted Obama’s leadership in approving the raid that killed the al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.
“The commander-in-chief gets one chance to make the right decision,” the video said, also quoting former President Bill Clinton praising Obama for ordering the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
“Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?” it asks, before referring to news reports quoting the former Massachusetts governor saying it was “not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
Republicans roundly criticized the ad.
John McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election, called it cheap. “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,” he said in a statement.
“President Obama is shamelessly turning the one decision he got right into a pathetic political act of self-congratulation.”
The video was similar to one used against Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign by rival Hillary Clinton questioning whether the then-inexperienced Obama was the right person to answer a “3 a.m. call.”
Obama on Friday alluded to bin Laden’s death without mentioning him by name during a visit to Fort Stewart, a sprawling Georgia military base and home of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. The base is a major staging area for troops deployed to Afghanistan - as it was previously for the Iraq war.
The event was billed as a chance to showcase his administration’s efforts to help U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggling to re-adjust to civilian life.
The president began his speech by thanking U.S. troops and special operations forces for achievements that his re-election campaign is also eager to cite, including the death of the al Qaeda leader who was behind the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and then evaded capture for nearly a decade.
“Future generations will speak of your achievements. They’ll speak of how the 3rd Infantry Division’s ‘thunder run’ into Baghdad signaled the end of a dictatorship and how you brought Iraq back from the brink of civil war,” he told more than 10,000 soldiers, veterans and their family members at the base.
“They’ll speak of you and your service in Afghanistan and in the fight against al Qaeda, which you have put on the path to defeat. And to the members of the Special Operations Forces community, while the American people may never know the full extent of your service, they will surely speak of how you kept our country safe and strong and how you delivered justice to our enemies,” he said.
Bin Laden was killed in the pre-dawn hours of May 2 in Pakistan, which was May 1 in the United States. The Obama administration does not want the anniversary of bin Laden’s death to pass without some credit going to the president.
Under fire from the Obama campaign as inexperienced on foreign policy, Romney accuses the White House of being paralyzed over the violence in Syria and weak on Iran and North Korea, which are at odds with Western nations over their nuclear programs.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s campaign said this week that Obama had left U.S. allies and dissidents exposed and isolated.
The president was joined at Fort Stewart by first lady Michelle Obama, popular among the troops for making a signature issue of veterans policy - including jobs, education, medical care and reducing homelessness.
After his remarks, Obama signed a directive aimed at curbing abusive practices by colleges and universities he said preyed on veterans for their federal education benefits, including signing up soldiers with brain injuries.
The White House has been rolling out new veterans’ initiatives regularly while his campaign courts the military community as a key voting bloc.
Obama lost the overall veterans’ vote - which traditionally tilts conservative - to Republican McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, in the 2008 presidential election, though Obama was favored by younger veterans.
Obama’s strategists believe he can do better this year among war-weary military families, especially in several key swing states, boosted not only by his administration’s veterans initiatives but by a record of winding down U.S. involvement in Iraq and forging an exit strategy from Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Laura MacInnis; Editing by Will Dunham