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. Retired VET

    Funny how the libs fail to remember that intel came from GITMO. TY Mr Bush. Mr Obama's failure in leadership of Libya, increase in our debt, Obamacare and soon rationing, unemplyment that HE said would not go above 8%. Soon to be $5 gas prices. The CIA/Seals did the tough work and HE just had to say go. Sure glad you lemmies will jump right off the cliff. Let's hope the independents are not so easily fooled. Makes me long for days of Jimmie Carter. LOL

    May 2, 2011 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  2. once upon a horse

    you can bet the far right, Tea partiers, FoxNews and all the Obama-haters are going to do their darnest not see this happen. Let's be honest if you're a right winger this was about the WORST thing that could have happened. I have read other forums where already some are trying to give the credit to Bush, say it was the military and not Obama and then you have what's left over of the birther bunch already saying it's a hoax. Heck if DICK CHENEY can come out and give Obama thanks and credit what is wrong with the rest of you people? And as far as those who said the military did it and not Obama, WHO is the head of the military you???? They can do NOTHING until the CIC tells them so. I wonder if Rush Limbaugh had wanted the president to fail in doing this as well. And Sarah Palin's response not even giving any credit to the POTUS was just PATHETIC.

    May 2, 2011 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  3. Ryan

    "Fed up" you sir are a bigot are you really so upset a democratic president is responsible for getting osama? Bush took his eye off the ball and invaded iraq a country that never invaded us to exact his personal revenge against saddam. Had he actually kept the focus on afghanistan( a mess he left for president obama, don't you hate hearing that "PRESIDENT OBAMA") he could've captured bin laden in tora bora but noooooo saddam's imaginary weapons of mass destruction were so much more of a threat at the time.

    PRESIDENT OBAMA directed leon panetta to aggresively go after bin laden which we have and what do you know we got em. Had this mission failed or gone horribly wrong PRESIDENT OBAMA would've shouldered all the blame so yeah he did have a lot on the line. WTF do you really think it's the POTUS's job to go in on a blackhawk and personally be on the front lines? You people are true scum not worthy of being called human you'll put politics before peoples lives any day of the week and there'll be a special place in hell for all of you.

    May 2, 2011 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  4. Sam

    It is amazing that GOP'ers do not want to acknowledge Obama at any level. When Bush left office, "He protected us from further attacks"...Under Obama's administration, when Bin Laden is killed the response is "he didn't do anything....military did" (see Fedup's response above). So what it take for you, GOP nimrads, to give credit where it is due? In 2012, had BinLaden been alive, you would have asked why he wasn't captured/killed as promised! Honestly, I am FED UP with the ilks of Fedup!

    May 2, 2011 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  5. Dave, Central Illinois

    Thank God that President Bush allowed waterboarding of KSM which resulted in the name of the "trusted" courier whos house Bin Laden was killed at. Notice how that bad G-word is still open and still houses the terrorist.....

    May 2, 2011 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  6. The Day of Financial Reckoning is HERE - The Great Democrat Welfare Society Ends

    Had this occurred in Oct. 2012 it might have helped his poll numbers but with his record of failure, this will be forgotten come Nov. 2012. Unless he's going to run a "re-elect me because I killed Osama" campaign. Sounds pretty dumb and smacks of turning a military operation where people risked their lives into a political event.

    May 2, 2011 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  7. The Clear Thinking Independent

    Congratulations from all of us patriotic, America – loving citizens; Mr. "NO DRAMA" Obama, on this significant accomplishment.

    You continue to demonstrate your intellect, command of the details, competence and a focus-on-results culture that represents CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN.

    Your work –

    a.) Stopping the H1N1 Pandemic
    b.) Stopping & popping those Somali Pirates
    c.) Stopping the BIGGEST Oil Well Rupture Ever
    d.) Securing a MASSIVE $40B Fund from British Petroleum to pay for damages
    e.) Restoring General Motors to solvency; saving hundres-of-thousands of JOBS in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri
    f.) Restoring Chysler through a partnership with Fiat
    g.) Reforming Healthcare including STOPPING INSURANCE Companies from denying coverage
    h.) Ending The Iraq War
    i.) Beginning to End the Afghanistan War
    j.) Lowering the Unemployment rate back to where it was in 2008 ... with it likely to go lower.

    are all much appreciated by we Americans that think for a moment

    Now, it truly is MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

    May 2, 2011 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  8. Joe

    Ignorant people. The administration did the right thing by "catering" to the Muslim religion. I understand that it may not have been the most popular decision, but that doesn't make it wrong. We are not showing respect for a murderer, but respect for a religious practice that over a billion people follow. Educate yourself please.

    May 2, 2011 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  9. PalmReader

    "Obama really did nothing special...he merely continued the policy put in place by President Bush."

    Apparently George Bush disagrees with you ... Bush commended President Obama for his actions.

    May 2, 2011 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  10. Bill

    <> Of course you convienently forget to mention that Obama is the Commander-in-chief of our military, has all the decision responsibilty, made the final decision to give this mission the green light.

    May 2, 2011 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  11. Fair is Fair

    Congratulations are in order. To MANY, MANY individuals, Obama included.

    Election 2012? It won't have much effect. The majority of Americans ALWAYS vote with their pocketbook, and if gas is over $3 and unemployment is over 8%, the man will not be reelected.

    May 2, 2011 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  12. LeShawn

    @Fed Up: Seriously! Obama did not do anything? Had the GOP been in charge they would have went after Bin Laden when they were given the information. Obama took the time to let people investigate, formalate a plan. practice the scenerios, then attacked. In essance he measured 10 times and cut once! But Obama didn't do anything huh? You are a real jerk sir! United we stand, but with people like you wanting to divide us we will fall! God Bless the United States of America!

    May 2, 2011 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  13. Dee

    Congratukation to the President when the critics said he was not leading and they needed a leader well you can see now what he was doing.

    He is very calm, methodical and gets things done I wonder what Donald Trump is saying now. He also has something in the works for the economy know one is talking about this. Pres. Clinton and President Obama are to collaborate in June in Chicago for Clinton's Global Initiative with business leaders etc.

    I admire this President and if given the opportunity he will turn this country around he has always told us that change was not easy and it takes times.

    May 2, 2011 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  14. vasu

    For a woman who has mystical powers of seeing Russia from her home, I think it is beneath her to acknowledge the success of the president in this matter and show some class.

    May 2, 2011 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  15. Bessy

    Hey Dan, grow up. What would the victims of 9/11 get if we hung onto the body. Were they going to go take little pieces off of it ? Were they going to stare at it 24/7 ? Of course not. We got what we needed from it, ie: photos and tissue samples to prove through DNA that it is him. That is all we needed. The most important thing is that " the SOB is dead ". DEAD.

    May 2, 2011 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  16. NJfinest2009

    I hope this gets posted since my last one did not. Congratulations! to our military service men and women! Obama "GOT" Osama!!! Yes, Obama will be re-elected in 2012, not just because of this, but because he is an honest and sincere president and out for the AMERICAN people. Who would have thought all this time. Osama was hiding in Donald Trumps wig! LOL all jokes aside. I am so proud to donate my little 25.00 to OBAMA'S 2012 campain. Sarah, Michelle and what ever the rest of the 2012 GOP hopefulls, you all need to get this economy fixed. Aren't you republicans fighting and cussing and taking abuse at these town hall meetings??????? OBAMA 2012 all the way. Mr. President and first family I am so proud of your tireless effort. Stay Strong OBAMA Family.. WE LOVE YOU!

    May 2, 2011 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  17. vet in texas

    if you add this and actual things done without utilizing opinions formed by obvious losers and then fed to the masses, then yes, he deserves re-election. Everything said of him has literally been disproven once FACTS and past actions of previous leaders are looked at. It will take the masses to look at actual things accomplished and their results instead of what Rush, Hannity, Levin, and O'Reilly say. That has been the problem the whole time, They have played their listeners with false, misleading information and taken their money in the process, don't beleive me, look into the fake Navy charity who bilked "real americans' out of billions of dollars, look at how much the wounded warriors actually receive over what is actually taken in. Real Americans admit when they've been played.........in order to see a sniper in the trees you have to look through the trees instead of at the tree. Essayons America, God bless

    May 2, 2011 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  18. The Real Tom Paine

    @ Dan:

    yes, I'm sure he had the body buried at sea just to annoy you. This is about the death of a murdererand the prper search for justice, not the need to satisfy your idiotic and ignorant blood-lust. FYI, my nephew returned from Afgahnistan just a week ago, and I am hoping this is the beginning of the end of this terrible chapter in our country's history.

    May 2, 2011 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  19. Nick

    During a time when Americans should all be joyful, the Republicans STILL can't be happy. I'm now convinced it's in conservatives' nature to be angry, negative and bitter. Good luck with that. After work, I'll be toasting to President Obama and the USA. Great day.

    May 2, 2011 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  20. rs

    A really interesting question. Obama is in fact responsible for putting the operation in action that resulted in the death of OBL. Obviously a good success, something that does in some way close the books on 9/11. However, IF the Republican Tea party congratulate the President on this accomplishment, they will be rejected by their extremist base. So, look forward to the diminishment of the importance of OBL by the Rep./TP, and criticism of operations in Pakistan. Don't worry- they'll attack the President for this before the election-it is their way.

    May 2, 2011 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  21. Liz the First

    bush let him go, Obama got him! no debating this simple fact. of course, facts don't matter to republicans, they'll find a way to turn this against him as usual. good job, Mr. President. i'll be very proud to vote for you again.

    May 2, 2011 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  22. B from NJ

    The only reason we found him is because of Gitmo and the Advanced Interrogation Tacticts used by the Bush Administration. (This gave us the name of OBL's trusted courier, which led to OBL himself). Obama, having oposed both Gitmo and the interrogation tactics, has no right to take responsibility for the victory. Utter hypocricy if he does.

    May 2, 2011 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  23. What's next?

    Tough stretch for Obama haters: Long-form birth certificate released, Bin Laden killed. Next thing you know the economy will start adding jobs ... Oh wait.

    May 2, 2011 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  24. Julie

    @dan...bin Laden was buried at sea because no country would claim his body.

    May 2, 2011 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  25. Bob in PA

    Wag, Wag, Wag !
    LOL – This man has the nerve to stand up and take credit for what our Military and Intelligence forces did.
    It won't take long before this dog no longer hunts.

    May 2, 2011 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
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