How much will bin Laden's death impact Obama's re-election?
May 2nd, 2011
12:33 PM ET
3 years ago

How much will bin Laden's death impact Obama's re-election?

Washington (CNN) – OK. Let's start with the obvious. President Barack Obama's announcement that Osama bin Laden has been killed is likely to provide an immediate boost to the president's poll numbers.

But not so obvious is whether Sunday night's news that the al Qaeda founder and leader was shot and killed by U.S. special operations forces during a raid in Pakistan will affect the 2012 presidential campaign.

Obama's approval rating among Americans is currently in the mid to upper 40's, according to the most recent national polls. Most political observers expect an immediate bounce.

"Sunday night was the best of the Obama presidency, injecting a much needed boost into his credibility as a leader," writes David Gergen, a senior political analyst for CNN and an adviser to four U.S. presidents, including both Democrats and Republicans. "Obama now walks taller, both at home and overseas."

When it comes to recent polling, foreign affairs was one of the few bright spots for Obama. The president's approval rating for foreign affairs stood at 54 percent, compared to 41 percent for health care and 39 percent for the economy, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation national survey conducted in January.

The news of bin Laden's death should boost those numbers as well as the president's image as a strong and effective leader.

"Strong leadership. That's perhaps the most important attribute for a president to have. And because this president doesn't scream and yell and pound his fist on the table, his critics underestimate his strength. Never again," says Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN Political contributor.

"In October of 2008, he said five words: We will kill bin Laden. He made that pledge in his very quiet 'Gary Cooper High Noon' style and now he's kept that pledge," adds Begala, a top political adviser in the Clinton White House who is now serving as a senior strategist for Priorities USA, a newly formed independent group which is raising money to defend Obama from attacks from Republicans during the next campaign.

Republicans agree that there will be at least a temporary boost for the president.

"In the short-term, yes. Yesterday was a great day for the nation. We are all rightly celebrating and politics isn't, and shouldn't, be a part of the equation," Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former communications Director for the Republican National Committee, tells CNN.

But just how long will the bounce last?

President George W. Bush saw his approval rating jump eight points, from 55 percent to 63 percent, in the days after his December 2003 announcement that Saddam Hussein had been captured in Iraq.

"But the bounce in his approval ratings, which is the most heavily watched indicator for a president's clout, was short-lived," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "While President Bush's numbers stayed in the mid 60's through January 2004, it was down to around 50 percent by February. Saddam's capture is probably the closest historical analogy we can draw, but because it occurred so close to the start of a presidential campaign, it may not provide good guidance for the length of any bounce President Obama picks up today."

Holland also notes that the gains Bush's father made immediately after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 also petered out just as a presidential campaign began

"In March, 1991, the approval ratings for George H. W. Bush rose to nearly 90 percent and stayed above 50 percent for the rest of the year. When did they drop below 50 percent? In January of a presidential election year," says Holland. "The track record of both Bushes indicates that no matter how long Obama's bounce lasts, it is not likely to survive the highly-partisan environment of a presidential election."

In the short term, criticism by many of the probable and possible 2012 Republican presidential candidates of how the president is handling foreign affairs may diminish. But that is unlikely to continue in the long run once the campaign heats up. Many of these likely GOP contenders for the White House have attacked Obama's responses to the unfolding events in Egypt, Libya and Yemen the past three months.

GOP strategist Heye notes that "several of the candidates praised the president."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, real estate mogul Donald Trump, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin all issued statements praising U.S. military and intelligence forces. But only three directly praised the president.

"I want to congratulate America's armed forces and President Obama for a job well done," said Pawlenty, in a statement, late Sunday night

"This is a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere. Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president," wrote Romney a few minutes later.

"I want to personally congratulate President Obama and the men and women of the Armed Forces for a job well done," added Trump Monday morning.

Begala says civility will only go so far with the probable GOP contenders: "They're in a tough position. Patriotism and good manners dictates that you congratulate the president. But of course politics has other rules. If I were advising them I'd tell them to congratulate the president and have some class."

But Heye says the killing of bin Laden doesn't give the president carte blanche on national security and defense issues: "There are still many foreign policy issues we face and how the administration handles them, and how the candidates would handle them, will be part of the discussion."

In the end, this temporary focus on national security and foreign affairs will most likely disappear, and the spotlight should return to the economy, jobs, gas prices, the deficit, and the budget battles.

"Any time there is a moment for America, it's a moment for the president. He runs the place. But the question is: What's the staying power of the moment," asks CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley, the anchor of CNN's State of the Union.

"I think the staying power of the moment could get overridden by what ever moments are to come between now and November of 2012. My feeling right now is that if unemployment remains high and the economy still feels sluggish to people, if their home values remain in the basement, the totality of their lives will override this moment."

"This will certainly be a peak for President Obama. But you know what happens after the peak, the fall. After this peak will come the economy. Remember George Bush 41. Now that we've put a period at the end of a very long sentence, we move on to the next sentence, and that is the economy," says Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos.

"Nothing is more dangerous in politics than success. Ask Winston Churchill. Foreign policy successes have never led to political success. Foreign policy success leads to the next problem. For Obama that's the economy," adds Castellanos, who was a top media adviser to the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and to Romney's 2008 bid for the GOP presidential nomination.

Churchill was a war hero during World War Two but the British prime minister was bounced out of office soon after the end of the conflict.

President George H.W. Bush may be the more relevant example for Obama. While Bush's approval rating skyrocketed following the defeat of Iraqi forces in early 1991 in the Persian Gulf War. But as the focus shifted from the war to tough economic times, Bush's numbers began to slide. By October, 1992 it was in the 30s, and he won 38 percent of the vote that year, in his re-election loss to then Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the Democratic challenger.

But history may not repeat itself. The situations are different and Obama is considered to be a much more gifted politician than the elder Bush.

One thing is almost certain. A sense of bipartisanship and unity may be short-lived.

"Let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11," the president said Sunday night as he announced the killing of bin Laden.

Such bipartisanship didn't last that long after the terrorist attacks in 2001, history will most likely repeat itself this time around.

–Follow Paul Steinhauser on Twitter: @psteinhausercnn


Filed under: 9/11 • Osama bin Laden • President Obama
soundoff (132 Responses)
  1. Anonymous

    We might as well proclaim him the winner now. 2012 is in the bag. He did what the GOP couldn't do. Let's see them attack his leadership now. They'll look like fools.

    May 2, 2011 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  2. Fed Up

    Obama didn't do anything to find Bin Laden. The military did. Of course, that will never be acknowledged. They put their lives on the line for this. Obama didn't.

    May 2, 2011 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  3. S. In California - Obama 2012

    You can bet it will. It amazes me how many times this man has been attacked (birth certificate, Rev. Wright, Muslim, Olympics in Chicago) it goes on and on and each time he just continues to IMPROVE and get STRONGER. As for those republicans who chose not to give our president any credit – it really doesn't matter because they will NEVER debate him in ANY forum for his job. Kudos Mr. President, our troops and the national security team. God Bless America.

    May 2, 2011 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  4. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    He didn't do it for re-election. He campaigned on this and promised to make it happen, and he did. Not all promises have been fulfilled, but so far his efforts have been admirable, AND HE WILL BE RE-ELECTED IN 2012.

    Obama All Day Long!!!

    May 2, 2011 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  5. Four and The Door

    It was a huge day for Obama. He pulled this off perfectly and it is a day and a victory that will stay prominent in American history. Everyone involved should be congratulated.

    But I would not vote for him against any and I mean any one of the top 10 GOP possible contenders in 2012. The US Presidency is a bigger job than one event and this is an event that America has been working towards for almost 10 years. He has one win with Bin Laden's demise and he deserves it.

    May 2, 2011 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  6. S. In California - Obama 2012

    And by the way Obama IS NOT George Bush or "the Junior." He is his own man. Thank God for that.

    May 2, 2011 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  7. Tony in Maine

    The American public has a very short memory.

    Had this been a staged faux raid as has already been suggested by the Deniers (the successors to chagrined Birthers), Obama's political team would have planned it for the Saturday before the 2012 election. That date would have precluded any spikes in gas prices, would have rattled Sunday morning's usual roster of talking point spouting Republican guests and guaranteed an Obama victory by at least twenty points.

    As it is, by election day 2012 – most Americans will recall that the Republican nominee took out bin whatever his name was with a single shot.

    May 2, 2011 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  8. Max

    Within the last 2 years, to avoid issues that certain groups did not want to talk about was to attach our President. Our Mr. President was having to prove himself at every turn. Seems to me the right is always trying to find something to pin on you, even when they already know it's not true. But, you, Mr. President kept taking it, and taking it. My question is: Why would you want 4 more years after the way you have been treated in just 2? By the way, keep up the good work and the kindness that you show toward others.

    May 2, 2011 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  9. dan

    If ever I had a thought of voting for Obama I'd never do it now. Obama ordered the body buried at sea to cater to the muslin relegion of a murder and deprive the victims of his crimes their due. Obama is the worst man on earth.

    May 2, 2011 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  10. Dean

    Obama really did nothing special...he merely continued the policy put in place by President Bush. Kudos to Obama for not dropping the ball. This shows how well Obama is doing his job...not screwing up is considered a success. It's too bad that this is his only success.

    May 2, 2011 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  11. gt

    it was a welcome bit of news... but there still 9% unemployed and 4 plus dollars for gas.... tight credit... that will be what makes the difference in 2012... not a mad mans death.... but give a big thumbs up today to the president .. and the seal team....

    May 2, 2011 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  12. Thankfully Independent

    One thing, it showed how petty and insecure most of the GOP presidential hopefuls are (Pawlenty is the only exception). Their total lack of character has been noted in other Poltical Ticker responses. As far as Fed Up is concerned, Obama convened and chaired at least five meeting regarding this operation ... so he did do something. Here's is something else to consider: Obama accomplished in 2-1/4 years what George W. Bush coulnd't do in 7-1/4 years. One should ask: Why is that?

    May 2, 2011 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  13. ConservaFASCISTS -aka- Mammon

    The death of OBL sure wouldn't hurt the President's chances of getting re-elected.

    May 2, 2011 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  14. Just A Pilot

    You are correct that the military did the work, but it required the Commander In Chief to authorize, so he is responsible for allowing this mission to be a success. In essence President Obama, as a leader authorized and delegated to take out this dirt bag. This means that Obama did everything, through the use of our amazing military machine.

    May 2, 2011 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  15. Rudy NYC

    In 2007, as the 2008 campaigns were kicking into high gear, Obama was faulted for his inexperience because had stated that if the United States had "actionable intelligence" concerning the location of OBL in Pakistan, the U.S. should act on the data and launch an attack mission without informing the Pakistani government, since the conservation had been about Pakistan prohibiting U.S. raids into their country. He was highly criticized for taking the exact action that resulted in the death of OBL.

    May 2, 2011 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  16. Beth Campbell

    The families of the 9/11 victims have justice at last. Obama can get the job done! It also shows that Obama is a class act in that he telephone George Bush to inform him of bin Laden's death.

    May 2, 2011 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  17. C. Flournoy from GA

    See this is what happens when you have a SMART PRESIDENT!!! Secrecy and Silence played key role in the murder of Osama Bin Laden...This will be a sure win for President Obama!! It took him 2 years to get him.. GWB had 8 years to get him but failed to do so!!! ONCE AGAIN I THANK THE MILITARY AND THE OBAMA ADMINSTRATION FOR BRINGING CLOSURE TO THE 9/11 VICTIMS FAMILIES!!! MAY GOD PROTECT OUR BRILIANT MEN AND WOMEN IN THE MILITARY AND OUR COMMANDER IN CHIEF!! WHAT A WONDERFUL DAY IN AMERICA!!

    May 2, 2011 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  18. chris

    Well, what I think these comparisons fail to mention is that this was a direct accomplishment of taking out a person that had a direct impact on the soil of America. The thing people need to understand is when looking at this President; his check lists of accomplishments are major!! He says what he will do and he does it!! So for all the distracters who don't want to give him credit, deep down inside you know he is doing a hellava job!! LOL So, I say way to go Mr. President, Way to go!!

    May 2, 2011 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  19. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    @Four and the Door
    He has one win with Bin Laden's demise and he deserves it.
    -------------------------------------------------–
    Thank you Four and the Door unlike many of those GOP contenders ( I won't call them 'pretenders' because I can be nice too) that you mentioned you showed a significant amount of class and fair play in commending our Commander-In-Chief. Let's be fair he deserves the credit right alongside the military personnel needed to execute the order.
    This is not the right time, however, for me to clarify the fact that he has more than ONE win on his columm. Let me just leave it at: Thank You sir/madam.

    May 2, 2011 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  20. The Choobs

    @Dan, you are missing the point: Obama ordered him buried at sea so there was no grave or marker to serve as a rallying point, physical and spiritual, for his followers. And as for providing a Muslim burial, that was important to not inflame even further those Muslims who, while they may or may not respect Bin Laden, they still look to the US to see if we respect their religion and culture, and respond with faithful angst (which includes peaceful as well as violent responses) when we don't. In the US, we allow a religious burial for all criminals, even death penalty recipients, and that is as it should be in a nation that values different faiths. We killed the dude, now he can rest alone in the ocean and let the sharks eat him while his soul perhaps has a chance in the afterlife.

    May 2, 2011 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  21. Seth in Jacksonville

    Hateful people leaving comments, as usual. President Obama will get reelected because the majority of Americans do not want the country "run like a business," with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and those of us int he middle getting squeezed. Using 2010 as an indicator won't work. Many people who didn't vote in that midterm election will be out in 2012 – all the college students and minority voters who tend not to vote in midterm elections. That is what pushed Obama over the top in 2008, and will do so again in 2012. Everyone knows this.

    May 2, 2011 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  22. The Situation

    Obama really did nothing special...he merely continued the policy put in place by President Bush. Kudos to Obama for not dropping the ball. This shows how well Obama is doing his job...not screwing up is considered a success. It's too bad that this is his only success.

    are you dumb. Bin Laden should of been the 1st priority and not Saddam Hussein. Bush told the world he want Bin Laden dead or alive. Saddam didn't authorize those planes to attack the WTC and the Pentagon. He

    May 2, 2011 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  23. Lieutenant Colonel

    Hey Fed Up. You are so wrongl; the Navy Seals were rightfully acknowledged. The President even called their actions courageous. What you fail to understand is that he is still ultimately responsible. Had the strike team failed, who would have been blamed? The President of course. What you fail to understand, is that the President issues guidance and orders. His orders were clear: find bin Laden and kill him if necessary. This kind of operation is complex. You need extremely smart people in the most senior leadership positions, particularly the President's National Security Advisors, in order for the President to make well informed decisions. President Obama has clearly shown that he is a leader. As a military leader, I am proud to serve under his leadership.

    May 2, 2011 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  24. GI Joe

    I love it – I'll vote for him any time he runs for office. He is SMART and diplomatic.

    GWB was all hat and no cattle. "Ready, fire, aim - ooops - missed by 7 years, but Mission Accomplished. tee hee hee -" nukular attacks, etc. are NOT presidential. GWB – the sloppiest CiC in our history. Cheney didn't help any either. What a pair of sneaky thugs.

    May 2, 2011 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  25. The Day of Financial Reckoning is HERE - The Great Democrat Welfare Society Ends

    Are you joking? After all his miserable failures and the state of our country, you think the acts of OTHER PEOPLE will get Obama a second term? Dream on libtards!

    This will fade from memory and the headlines pretty fast. And all we be left with are high unemployment, sky rocketing gas and food prices, huge debt, huge deficits, and no leadership from the empty suit in the Whitehouse.

    May 2, 2011 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
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