How much will bin Laden's death impact Obama's re-election?
May 2nd, 2011
12:33 PM ET
4 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. Thankfully Independent

    Obama sounded awfully presidential last night and his speech was just about perfect. I especially liked his thanking the U.S. military and intelligence communities. Best of all, he did not have a large banner behind him that read, "Mission Accomplished."

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

    Way to go Mr. Obama your leadership is exactly what America needs

    May 2, 2011 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  3. Anthony

    President Obama, still cleaning up the mess Bush and company left behind!
    OBAMA 2012

    May 2, 2011 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  4. Republican Robber Baron

    The Obama-Haters finally are forced to admit The President took care of business. Don't go too far on limb there Rightie Extremists. You owe President Obama and his supporters an apology for being such traitors and for total disrespect by your cowardly Partisan insults.

    Reagan cheated with the October Surprise negotiations to delay the release of the Iranian hostages until after the election.
    President Obama did NOT cheat and earned this long-overdue victory fair and square. Go home GOP'ers for 2012 – you have nothing to offer regardless.

    May 2, 2011 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  5. Rudy NYC

    I don't think Obama authorized this now successful mission to get re-elected. In case you didn't notice, he did not make any claim, nor speak any words to suggest, "mission accomplished."

    No, he authorized the mission so that we can sit here and freely debate the merits of it.
    (All without knowing if that was Bin Laden's location or not, which in part is why missles strikes were ruled out.)

    May 2, 2011 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  6. Name king

    I guest not too much, there is about a 40 percent of the people that will never vote for obama just because of who is, and it doesn't matter what his policies are. Another 30 percent that switches faster than you can blink, and his base who want him to be more liberal. Obama is very beatable, I just don't see an overwhelming repug out their that will beat him hands down at the moment.

    May 2, 2011 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  7. Ryan

    What do Dick Cheney and his mindless daughter say about Obama's toughness on terror now! "Idiots"

    May 2, 2011 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  8. New Age Independant

    Zero difference in the next election. One good day cannot, and SHOULD NOT diminish the failures of this administration. The military, yeah, the ones that the liberals hate, are the ones who get the credit for the job well done.

    May 2, 2011 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  9. Edward

    Not only will it help in his reelection efforts it will also give him some leeway if any terrorist activity occurs between now and election day.

    May 2, 2011 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  10. Biggge

    This is for Dan... You seem to not understand what is going on, you are one of though guys who would have us into another war... For the simple minded, this was not a issue with muslin relegion, the was a issue with a mass murder, period. Thank you Mr. President for your handling of the stituation, shows real leadership... Dan put ur hood in your back pocket and jion the rest of us....

    May 2, 2011 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  11. val

    I can't wait to vote for him again. I would never vote for a REPUBLICAN. ALL THE POSIBLE REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE/S IS NO WERE NEAR PRESIDENT OBAMA'S CALIBER! They have a PEA SIZE BRAIN. They are NARROW MINDED PEOPLE AND AFRAID TO EXPAND THEIR HORIZONS!

    May 2, 2011 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  12. usualone

    Here I am detesting Donald Trump and he is the only Republican potential candidate to actually thank the President using the President's name. Romney did thank the President but not by name. In another article it didn't mention Pawlenty thanking the President, but this one says it does. We know politics will show its ugly head soon....but this is really fine that these three candidates did include the President in their appreciation. The others are showing that they will never work for the whole country. Shame on them.

    May 2, 2011 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  13. dyinglikeflies

    Obama has been "the adult in the room." He has proved it by successfully supervising a secretive, delicate and effective military campaign which has achieved more success in 2 years than Bush did in 7 years.That may not play well for the tabloid-hungry, limited attention span folks who lap up thier propaganda from Fox News, but it is comforting to those REAL Americans who want effective, responsible leadership.

    May 2, 2011 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  14. Grant

    Those that are on here speaking against President Obama never voted for him in the first place.

    However the rest of us will.

    The Republican just gave the Sr votes to President Obama because of the health care plan and giving the rich a tax break.

    Osama just gave the President the youth votes because they feel safe and secure with him. And trust me they will vote in numbers this time for him to make sure he get 4 more years.

    The middle class indepentants like that he will do what he say he will do. He did not create this mess, but boy O boy he sure know how to clean it up.

    Obama 2012

    May 2, 2011 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  15. Nellie Bly

    The only reason the Bushes didn't sustain their elevated ratings is due to one thing, their last name. George W. had seven years to get bin Laden after 09/11. He didn't put hey, he showed us a great golf swing. Obama said he'd get him and he did.

    Of the three potential GOp candidates that congratulated the President, only two (Mitt an T-paw) are legit. After the bruisingTrump took on Saturday, he had no choice but to attempt a gracious statement.

    May 2, 2011 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  16. Billy, NYC

    No matter what President Obama accomplished, the GOPs will never acknowledge his strengths and good leadership skills. Someone always critizes him by not go to Paskistan and shoot Bin Laden with his own hand. Facts: The military deserves the recognitions as well as the good Leadership and competence of President Obama and his administration. Just because he looks different from the other Presidents, he has to prove himself to the public all the time that he is legitmate and presidential. Give me a break!

    May 2, 2011 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  17. Me

    Yee-haw is not a good foreign policy. Bush proved that.

    September 11 is my wedding anniversary. For the first time in many years, it just might be a happy day.

    God bless those that were lost and their loved ones.

    May 2, 2011 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  18. KathyC in Minnesota

    That President obama called former President Bush about this showed class on Obama's part. That he also gave credit to Bush showed SUPER CLASS.

    Republicans need to go away, pout in the corner, and remain irrelevant.

    May 2, 2011 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  19. SunnyGuy53

    >> 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.

    What do you mean, that will never be acknowledged? Everyone knows Obama didn't single-handedly take down bin Laden. Of course credit has to go to all the people who were involved.

    What people like you will never ackowledge, is that Obama is the Commander-in-Chief of our military, and promised during his presidential campaign that he would get bin Laden. And now he has fulfilled that pledge.

    Bush was too busy worrying about taking out that tin-horn Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to focus on bin Laden, like Obama did.

    You get what you pay for.

    Sunny Guy

    May 2, 2011 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  20. Get A Grip

    OBL is gone. That's a good thing. Won't make a difference in 2012. Obama will still be a one term president.

    May 2, 2011 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  21. GrogInOhio

    Quietly getting things done, without "Mission Accomplished" banners or flights to the deck of an aircraft carrier wearing a cod piece, is EXACTLY the kind of president we need.

    May 2, 2011 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  22. Chewy

    The skill and bravery of the men who pulled off this mission to rid the world of this monster is tremendous, but it does nothing to improve my opinion of Obama ... who had very little to do with it. I am grateful for our service men and women, but the damage done by Obama on the domestic front lines cannot be ignored. Bin Laden may be dead, but that doesn't make Obama a great President.

    May 2, 2011 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  23. Chipster

    I suppose we have a more complete understanding of why he decided to pull the plug on the "Carnival Barkers" who appear to have no true sense of priorities. This is not a game, moose hunt, craps shoot, side show or book signing party. The job is real. The policies and decisions impact future generations. Put it in perspective: Trump was "proud" of achieving a copy of a Certificate of Live Birth, instead of the Certification of Live Birth issued by the State Health Department. Think, just think, about those priorities and just let it soak in for a minute......

    May 2, 2011 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  24. keeth in cali

    This will barely affect the election. This is 18 months before the election. If Obama had really meant to use this as a political ploy, he would have waited until 18 days before the election, not 18 months.

    May 2, 2011 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  25. Tim

    It shouldn't have any impact. Obama had about as much to do with Osama's death as I did. His incoherent foreign policy should have much more of an influence. But we know the press will try to make him look good by focusing on this and not on his massive shortcomings.

    May 2, 2011 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
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