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. Accountability in Government

    Stock market is up ENORMOUSLY under President Obama. This means that 401-K values have signficantly rebounded. I remember when Republicans claimed Reagan was and "ECONOMY GOD" because the DJIA was up when he was President.

    Will the Barack H. Obama get the same credit? I doubt it! Does he DESERVE it? You BETCHA!

    May 2, 2011 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  2. P a l I n 2112

    Only simple minded bigots will fail to acknowledge our President's accomplishment.

    May 2, 2011 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  3. The Other Michael in Houston

    Yep, this has sealed the deal. I mena don't get me wrong, there was already a very high likely hood that President Obama was going to win in 2012, now it is all but a done deal. Sucks for you Republican Jihadist hating Americans. Sorry that your counterpart got smoked, Republicans, by the best spec ops team in the history of the world! No suprise that only 2 out of the bunch even gave President Obama his just due. That's okay, we dont need your approval, we will let him know what we think Nov 2012 when he is re-elected.

    May 2, 2011 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  4. Thank you Mr. President

    In one week our President Obama:

    1. Beat down the birthers
    2. Consoled Alabama
    3. Made us laugh
    4. Made use proud

    May 2, 2011 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  5. sneakypete

    If Bin Laden's death makes the US unemployment rate drop, makes the US tax rate drop, and makes the price of gas go back down to under $2.00 a gallon, his death will reelect Obama. If not, forget about it!

    May 2, 2011 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  6. Al

    People have a short term memory but this will help President Obama in 2012.

    May 2, 2011 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  7. Maxwell from VA

    In response to Dan- what would you have done with the body? Bring back to US soil so folks like you could pick over it like vultures?

    May 2, 2011 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  8. Alex

    Comparisons to George H.W. Bush are not all that relevant either...the economy was on a decline in H.W's election year; during Obama's we will be seeing a steadily (though slowly) improving economy. That's a significant difference that won't be overlooked.

    May 2, 2011 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  9. GonzoinHouston

    It will be a boost, at least in the short term, and will help in the election, but it guarantees nothing for 2012. The elder Bush had a 90% approval rating after victory in the first gulf war and still lost to Clinton, primarily because of the economy.

    What's the most amusing is how hard some right-wingers are trying to minimize Obama's credit. They would rather die than admit that something good can be attached to Obama's name.

    May 2, 2011 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  10. The Prince of Common Cents

    I'm reading some of these comments and just can't believe the HATRED of President Obama! The man could walk on WATER and some would say, "He didn't walk fast enough!" I'm shaking my head here at some of the following comments:

    1. "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".

    2. "I would not vote for him (Obama) against any and I mean any one of the top 10 GOP possible contenders in 2012".

    3. "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".

    4. "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 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  11. Marla

    Once again, President Obama has proven that not only is he "the adult in the room", he is the most intelligent person in the room. I am so glad to have a strong, well-educated intelligent man leading our country.

    May 2, 2011 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  12. New Age Independant

    Kudos to Seal Team 6 for a job well done! As for Obama, it's the ever lame liberal dual standard. Praise Obama for the minor role he played in this, yet when Saddam was captured, Bush did nothing. How pathetic. Once again, the military prevails.

    May 2, 2011 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  13. Debby

    Bush put the wheels in motion and Obama followed through. They both deserve credit, but the real heros are our military who carried out the mission with no casualties.

    May 2, 2011 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  14. lol

    “President Bush is too obsessed with some guy in a cave!”
    -Candidate Obama

    There is your fearless leader Obama ! gimme a break this is laughable ...credit goes to Bush!

    May 2, 2011 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  15. patriot

    The military has done its job. Telling them its ok to do it does not give him credibility for this job well done.

    May 2, 2011 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  16. Sniffit

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

    Yeah, right...except Bush went around saying things like the following:

    "I don’t know where [Osama bin Laden] is. You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him to be honest with you … And I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don’t know where he is. I — I’ll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."
    – George Bush, October 2004

    You and the rest of the jerks (including Faux Noise, which failed to give any credit to Obama and posted an article with Dubya's picture in it) who want to claim this is all Dubya's doing can really just stuff. Obama didn't just "not drop the ball"...he picked it up and ran with it after Dubya, Cheneybot and Rummy dropped it.

    May 2, 2011 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  17. FM

    The way 9/11 attack went into history books, it is the same way President will be. The attack in American soil which had never happened before, was a remarkable event thus it shook the entire world. Taking the life of the person (bin Laden) who geared the attack, was also a remarkable thing worldwide.

    May 2, 2011 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  18. ingrid

    Dean and Dan, sorry but you are both way out there. Obama clearly can do nothing right in your eyes. Try to be a bit more balanced in your views.

    May 2, 2011 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  19. J

    To the "deniers" that are already starting to bash Pres. Obama with: "Oh he didn't really do anything", or that Pres. Bush should get the credit, I can guarantee that if the operation had failed and Bin Laden escaped and the Special Ops troops had been killed, (a la Pres Carter in 1980), the deniers would have been the first in line to be barbecuing Pres. Obama right now. Pres. Obama DEFINITELY deserves credit for this operation, as at the end of the day the commander-in-chief is the one that's ultimately responsible. To be fair, I was definitely not a supporter of Pres. Bush at all; however, when the 9/11 attacks happend, I supported Pres. Bush 100% in capturing/killing Bin Laden, and if this would have happend under his watch, I would have been just as happy, and would have felt just as supportive and proud of Pres. Bush as I do for Pres. Obama. However, there are people out there that hate Pres. Obama so much, they don't care what he does, they will always find a way to bash him some how. Hopefully Americans won't forget who got the job done next year, and, (hopefully), Pres. Obama should win in a landslide in next year's election! In anycase, THREE CHEERS AND HOORAY FOR THE USA!!! AND HOORAY FOR PRESIDENT BARACK H. OBAMA!!!

    May 2, 2011 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  20. Mega Man X

    Just simply glad that this is still a victory for us, nothing more.

    May 2, 2011 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  21. a Minnesotan

    @ Thankfully Independent,

    Please do not fall for Pawlenty's charm. If he ends up getting the GOP bid in 2012, I implore you to look at what he did in MN as governor. He did a lot of smooth talking to independents and came of as a moderate. His policies were anything but.

    May 2, 2011 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  22. Sandy

    I can't believe this! I prayed for Sadaam Hussein to be caught and brought to justice and IT HAPPENED!!! For the passed 6 years I've been praying for Obama and his administration to capture OBL and bring hime to justice and IT HAPPENED!! THANK THE LORD OUR GOD!!! AS for Dean and gt, SCREW YOU! First of all, he has another lsucess: the Healthcare Reform. Give the president credit where credit is due. Despite GOP's attempt to discredit, dishonor, and disgrace Obama, Obama stood up, stood tall, and kept on moving forward. MAY GOD BLESS HIM AND GOD BLESS UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!

    May 2, 2011 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  23. eh? there was a tower 7?

    They got Bin Laden! Good news. Now they should go after the guy behind the 9/11 attacks. What is George W up to nowadays anyway? On the board of directors at some weapons company? Or was that his dad?

    May 2, 2011 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  24. Joan

    President Obama's inner strength, compassion, intelligence, leadership and statesmanship have been illustrated many times over this last week. He went to the states destroyed by the tornadoes and grieved with the victims. He visited with Sen. Giffords and comforted her and gave her encouragement. He was absolutely hilarious at the dinner on Sat. night poking fun at himself and his opponents all the while knowing what he had ordered to take place the next day which was dangerous and history changing. Last night he was strong, focussed and compassionate during his announcement about the attack. Today he just honoured some brave war heroes and comforted and showed great respect for their families. This an all-around, stand-up President and all Americans should be proud to have him as their leader. Many countries are very envious and would take him in a heart-beat to lead their nations. When he was speaking last night before midnight I said to my family that Americans are crazy if they don't re-elect him in 2012. Congratulations to the President, his team, the Navy Seals and everyone else involved. The world salutes and thanks you.

    May 2, 2011 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  25. Anonymous

    Well obama finally fufilled one promise!

    May 2, 2011 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
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