How much will bin Laden's death impact Obama's re-election?
May 2nd, 2011
12:33 PM ET
10 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. Stephen in Bedford, TX

    Regardless of what anyone says, especially the Tea Party nutjobs and all the other Republicans who hate the president, it happened on President Obama's watch and he gave the go ahead for the SEALs to take him out. Vice President Cheney even congratulated President Obama for a job well done.
    We probably could have done a lot sooner if we did not waste so much time and lives fighting a war in the wrong country under the leadership of President Bush.

    May 2, 2011 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  2. NC

    Everything that obama does is for campaigning purposes. He did nothing and should not take or be given any credit for what the men and women of the military did. He obviously catered to bin ladens religion by burying him within 24 hours. The body of bin laden should have been buried after it was shown on t.v. to the world as proof that it really is bin laden. He should have been buried when it was confirmed and than buried in the middle of nowhere without a muslin burial. obama catered to him by burying him within 24 hours. We must remember that our country has a 14+ trillion debt, high gas and food prices, an unemployment rate of 8.8+, terrible obamacare plan, lack of security on both borders, etc, etc, etc. obama must and will not be re-elected. Sorry liberals, that is how it has to be. Vote for the Republican candidate in November 2012.

    May 2, 2011 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  3. Swing Voter here

    Democrats vote democrat. Republicans vote republican. Thankfully, the voters that decide whom to put in power are the independents and liberals aka swing voters. All else is sinking sand.

    May 2, 2011 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  4. mary menard

    The President, had a somewhat different "team" than the former president Bush. Leon Panetta, became head of the CIA, in February 2009 , after the new Presidency. Respect to both men, but they each have their input about who they will work close with and trust. Fortunatly Robert Gates, is a "treasure" that both parties like and respect and has civility. Great day for the USA!!

    May 2, 2011 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  5. OneMoreTime

    @DAN: Exactly what was deprived of the victims? What would they do with a dead body? Mutilate it, touch it,
    take souveniers? How do you put a dead person on trial? I can't think of a better demise than to throw him to the sharks. As for "catering to the muslim religion", I can't think of a more stupid comment than this. And, for your feeble little mind to think about, the "worst person in the world" was just killed, tossed into the ocean like garbage, and good riddance for sure. Too bad your hate has overtaken your sense of pride and reason.

    May 2, 2011 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  6. Tony Siers

    I read the comments by Doug Heye, a GOP strategist. One huge difference between what the Bush Presidents did and what President Obama did. Sadam Husain did not nor was he the master mind behind the murder of 3,000 American citizens. Bin Laden was and it was President Obama who worked quietly behind the scenes and took all the criticism in the press from opponents that he was not doing enough and got justice for us.
    I’m sure President Obama wanted to brief the public but could not so the lead would not be lost. Now that is what President does.

    May 2, 2011 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  7. 227rick

    Obama did not get OBL the military did. Although, I guess this is the only campaign promise that he has kept other than screwing up the health care in America.

    May 2, 2011 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  8. JB

    Eough said..."Job Well Done, Mr. President"

    May 2, 2011 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  9. Corrupt US

    Will this affect my voting come 2012....No and I voted for Obama first time around but I don't see any republicans I want to vote for next time round either. But to say I will base my decision by this or that it will have any weight into my decision...No, it will not.

    May 2, 2011 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  10. Sgt Joe

    There's just one big difference, Obama is not a Bush; he is politically way different, especially from "W". He has a quiet yet commanding leadership style and people will take notice. Those who hate him because he's "different" will likely continue to do so even if he personally cured cancer. The country will prosper without them. Fact is, Obama's a world class leader. Bravo Mr. President and our military and intel for following through on a brilliant mission!

    As for the one whiner to who thinks bin Laden's body should have been handled in a different way....I say that is exactly why we are Americans, first and foremost. I'm proud of that.

    May 2, 2011 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  11. Kmarcel3

    God bless America, Our Commander-in-Chief, the brave men and women of Our Armed Forces and the families of all victims of senseless terrorist attacks.

    This is a great day for OUR country!

    May 2, 2011 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  12. AZ DEM

    This won't be THE reason but it definitely will be ONE of the reasons. Its getting harder and harder as time goes on for these challengers to truly discredit Obama with anything that sticks. He is doing a fantastic job and deserves another 4 years to finish the job he was sent to do for ALL Americans

    May 2, 2011 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  13. seriously???

    "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."

    One thing's for sure, no president will ever scrub stupidity off the Earth.

    May 2, 2011 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  14. Mary

    Mr. president you are the best and definelty got my vote. I love you.

    May 2, 2011 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  15. Don JJ

    WOW!!! It looks like Obama's zombies came out to praise him other than the military who created and executed this mission. We still have inflation, 9% unemployment, and a huge deficit. Only someone with no mind and is brainwashed would vote for this pompous fool to be reelected.

    May 2, 2011 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  16. Ronbo42

    We the people did it. With our people, money, and leadership. President Obama is the commander in chief. It happened under his watch. Obama has proved he is an American and a leader. I was starting to lose hope in Obama. This has changed all of that for this independent. I'm sure it has for many others as well.

    May 2, 2011 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  17. Tomtom

    Obama 2012! Slam dunk, back board shattered.

    May 2, 2011 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
  18. Nick, Martha's Vineyard

    That is simple. The same 30% of the pollers who weren't going to vote for President Obama (birthers,baggers etc) then, aren't
    going to vote for him in 2012. These are the same percentages of people that poll negative on every issue. The
    President was elected by a MAJORITY, which he will also be re-elected by in 2012. Easily.

    May 2, 2011 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
  19. miracle10

    I am truly blessed to have lived in this era. I think that there will never be another President like Obama. He has shown he is a true leader throughout inspite of critizism and all the other garbage that he had to endure. He stayed focused and when he needed to he let each and every one of them how he felt. He will always have haters because he is the smartest and charismatic with the people of the US. As long as i live I will treasure these years and remember how it use to be with a President who focused on the people. I am proud to be an American, and happy that all the people on 9/11 were vindicated.

    May 2, 2011 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  20. Sick of the hate

    These comments stating Obama did nothing but carry out what Bush had started...unbelievable. Give credit where it's due. Obama did what Bush COULDN'T or WOULDN'T do. I always said bin Laden is hiding right under Bush's nose and laughing every day but Bush swore by his intelligence he was given and that the murderer was hidden in those caves. Bottom line – this is a victory – if you want to be nominal and give it to Bush go ahead but remember – Bush's daddy gave bin Laden the guns to get this show started!

    May 2, 2011 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  21. Indy

    Obviously the President was hands on with involvement and it could not have been accomplished without Obama and he deserves some credit. You won't find Obama beating his chest bust rest assured he was very much involved in the whole process. The military and intellegence carried out the executive order with determantion and precision that resulted in victory and it is a great day to be proud of the President and every American should be thankful that a unified mission was accomplished.

    May 2, 2011 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  22. Rick McDaniel

    Not at all.

    All he did is give the go-ahead to conduct the operation without the cooperation of the country involved.

    May 2, 2011 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  23. Ohio Man

    @ Four and The Door.. I'm so proud of you .. i would have never thought i would see the day when you gave thanks to the Prez.. Happy to see your human after all .. Thank you for always being so honest, but he has done more good than bad for this country you just wont admit to it .. its ok we still luv u anyway

    May 2, 2011 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  24. Captain Awesome

    Does this mean that the 'truthers' were wrong all along and 9-11 was not an inside job?

    May 2, 2011 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  25. Ray Merc

    Now I personally served my country for 5 years and let me say, even though the service members found and killed Bin Laden, we should not take President Obama credit for it. He did great as a leader! Bush did not even accomplish this which was his first mission then left it to find Hussein. And I know, we the members of the armed forces love Obama for this!!

    May 2, 2011 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
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