Osama bin Laden's death will boost Obama approval rating, but for how long?

Amid bipartisan praise for the bin Laden mission, the Obama approval rating will get a bump, but the feel-good moment won't last forever. In the 2012 election, economic recovery will be the issue.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
People buy Los Angeles-area newspapers with the death of Osama bin Laden on the front pages, in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles, on Monday, May 2. President Barack Obama announced Sunday night that bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan in an operation led by US forces.
US Government
US Government

President Obama is sure to get a political boost from the US killing of Osama bin Laden.

Just as President Carter looked ineffectual after a botched military mission in 1980 to rescue the US hostages in Iran, Mr. Obama benefits from the opposite outcome. He is wrapped in an aura of success. And that success message will stay in the news for days and weeks to come, as details of the planning and implementation of Sunday’s raid on the Al Qaeda leader’s compound in Pakistan emerge. Obama himself is winning plaudits from across the political spectrum for his handling of the effort as commander in chief.

But the mood won’t last forever. Just ask the first President Bush. He scored big politically following the successful 1991 Gulf War, only to lose reelection a year and a half later amid high unemployment. In 2012, Obama too will ultimately be judged first and foremost on the state of the US economy, which is still digging out of a deep recession.

“Obviously [the death of bin Laden] is a big mission accomplished, and the exuberance will clearly benefit Obama,” says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “There will be a moment of celebration, but then the partisanship will continue. It doesn’t insulate him from those kinds of attacks down the line.”

Still, Mr. Zelizer adds, the elimination of Mr. bin Laden is not just a foreign policy and military achievement; the war on terror is one of the big issues of our era, and bin Laden was enemy No. 1.

Will Republicans be dissuaded?

“Clearly,” he says, “it’s something Republicans are aware is going to loom large in the public’s mind – that he was the president to do it.”

Some analysts are even wondering if bin Laden’s demise will make Obama look harder to beat in 2012, and therefore dissuade some potential Republican candidates from jumping into the ring. At the moment, all eyes are on Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), who has been hinting for months he might run, and has said he would make an announcement after his state’s legislative session ends. That took place Friday, but still no word.

For Governor Daniels, who has built a reputation as a budget cutter and who would base a presidential campaign on economic and fiscal issues, the bin Laden news may not affect his decision. But for someone like former UN Ambassador John Bolton, who has also talked about possibly running and who would center a campaign on foreign policy, Obama’s success on bin Laden might give him pause about taking on the incumbent president.

Polls show Republican voters dissatisfied with the GOP field of likely candidates. Thus the clamoring for a heavy-hitter like Daniels to get in.

Obama, too, is working the politics of the moment. In his remarks to the nation Sunday night, he declared that “today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.”

That bow to “American exceptionalism” seemed to be aimed at the critics who say he does not subscribe to the idea of American greatness and is giving up too easily on American primacy in the world.

It was, in short, a moment for America to feel good about itself. The field of likely and possible Republican presidential candidates were uniformly positive about Sunday’s news – in some cases congratulating President George W. Bush, in addition to Obama, in a bow to their own party’s hand in the matter.

“This is a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a statement. “Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president. My thoughts are with the families of Osama bin Laden's many thousands of victims, and the brave servicemen and women who have laid down their lives in pursuit of this murderous terrorist.”

'Americans tonight are united'

“This is terrific news for freedom and justice,” said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush promised that America would bring Osama bin Laden to justice — and we did. I want to congratulate America's armed forces and President Obama for a job well done.”

“Americans tonight are united in celebration and gratitude,” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said. “God bless all the brave men and women in our military and our intelligence services who contributed to carrying out the successful mission to bring Bin Laden to justice and who laid the groundwork over the years to make this victory possible.”

“This victory is a tribute to the patient endurance of American justice,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “I commend both President George W. Bush who led the campaign against our enemies through seven long years and President Obama who continued and intensified the campaign in both ghanistan and Pakistan.”

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