Nabbing bin Laden boosts Obama, but maybe not for long

McClatchy NewspapersMay 2, 2011 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has gained stature from the dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden, but history shows that a burst of national euphoria many months before an election doesn't assure victory for an incumbent who's seeking another term.

Obama's job-approval numbers probably will spike, and for a while he may even look unbeatable as the 2012 campaign season unfolds. But he still has to confront a weak economy, and as long as Americans see gasoline prices near $4 a gallon, analysts said, he shouldn't count on an easy campaign.

Obama's greatest gain is that he now looks more presidential: the commander in chief who got bin Laden, after George W. Bush spent most of his eight-year presidency trying, but failing, to find him.

"It took a long time to run Osama down," said University of Texas political analyst Bruce Buchanan. "Bush didn't have enough. Obama didn't do it rapidly, but he did it, and people like that."

However, the presidential election is still 18 months away. And as New Hampshire conservative activist Jennifer Horn put it, killing bin Laden "doesn't change the unemployment rate or the health care crisis."

Buchanan tended to agree: "Unless the war is a crisis that happens right before Election Day, it isn't necessarily a plus. You can be shown the door in spite of that."

Military successes usually mean bumps up in the polls for presidents. Bush got the biggest ever after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when his job-approval rating soared to 86 percent from 51 percent within days. He soon hit a record 90 percent.

President John F. Kennedy's numbers jumped 13 points during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and President Bill Clinton got a 7-point boost after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

Perhaps the most sobering reminder of how fleeting such a bump can be is the experience of George H. W. Bush, whose boost came at a point in his presidency that's similar to Obama's now. During the Persian Gulf War in February 1991, Bush's Gallup poll rating rocketed to a then-record 89 percent. Many political analysts thought he'd be a shoo-in for re-election in 1992.

The next year, however, amid a stagnant economy and perceptions that he was out of touch with it, Bush first endured a nomination challenge from conservative Pat Buchanan, then lost the general election to Clinton. In fact, Bush garnered the lowest popular-vote total of any incumbent president in 80 years.

Much the same thing happened to Winston Churchill. After he led Great Britain to victory in World War II, British voters, focused on the economy, tossed him out of office in 1945.

Frank Newport, the Gallup Poll's editor in chief, suggested that the pattern could repeat itself this cycle.

"A year from now I think the focus will be quite a bit more on the economy than on what happened to Osama bin Laden," Newport said, but then he hedged: "Sometimes this can have a lasting effect on the image of a leader. We just don't know at this point."

Some Republicans acknowledged that bin Laden's death helps Obama at least for now. It "takes an easy talking point off the table," said Craig Robinson, the founder and editor of The Iowa Republican.com, which reports on GOP developments in the first state traditionally to vote on presidential nominees.

"This changes the equation for Republicans," said Robinson, former state GOP political director. "You're going to have to really know your stuff now."

Some conservatives who form the GOP base, including those aligned with the tea party movement, thought bin Laden's death would have little lasting political significance.

"This is certainly a flash-point moment for the nation, but this is a very narrowly defined issue," said Horn, the New Hampshire activist.

Arthur Neu, a moderate Republican and former Iowa lieutenant governor, said nothing was likely to persuade extremists to take a fresh look at Obama. He recalled how last week's flap over the president's birth certificate still didn't quiet many Obama-bashers. "Now they're questioning his grades in school," Neu said.

Most problematic for Obama, though, is the economy. A McClatchy-Marist poll conducted April 10-14 found that 57 percent of registered voters disapproved of his economic policies, while only 40 percent approved, the lowest ratings of his presidency.

"Obama's numbers are declining because people remain convinced the country's heading in the wrong direction, and that the recession is not over. Even though the economists don't see it that way, the people are the ones that cast the votes," Buchanan said. "He needs to worry more about other things. In terms of his political strategy, it's not time to rest on any laurels."

ON THE WEB

Gallup poll history

National Bureau of Economic Research recession history

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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