It’s corny, but not entirely inaccurate, to say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” for President Obama this week. In Tuesday’s Gallup tracking poll, Obama enjoyed a 52 percent job-approval rating, his highest since May 2010, and his disapproval was down to 40 percent, the lowest since February 2010.
The new NBC News survey, conducted May 5 through 7 by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his Republican counterpart, Bill McInturff, also put Obama’s approval rating at 52 percent, with his disapproval at 41 percent. Only once since July 2009 has the president’s approval rating been as high or his disapproval number as low in polling for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.
In the NBC survey, 57 percent of respondents said they approve of his handling of foreign policy, the highest ever for Obama, and 35 percent said they disapproved, 11 points lower than a month ago. Fifty-six percent said they approve of his handling of the war in Afghanistan, another personal best for Obama. On measurements such as “having strong leadership qualities” and “having the ability to handle a crisis,” his numbers are up sharply.
The president has good reason to take a bow for the killing of Osama bin Laden. He took an enormous risk in overriding the advice of many of his top military and national-security advisers who recommended bombing the Abbottabad compound instead of sending in a special-operations team without Pakistan’s consent. The bombing option would have risked no U.S. troops and was clearly the easiest way to deal with the situation, in which the odds of bin Laden actually being in the compound were somewhere between 30 and 70 percent.
Had the mission failed and Navy SEALs died, Obama surely would have been excoriated as Jimmy Carter II. Critics would have compared the bin Laden mission to the ill-fated Desert One attempt to rescue the 53 American hostages in Tehran just over three decades ago. Desert One resulted in the death of five Air Force personnel and three Marines, plus the loss of eight aircraft. Obama’s decision to roll the dice on the bin Laden operation was as big a gamble as any president has taken in some time, and the political risk was enormous.
The wager paid off handsomely. Instead of ending up with a crater in Abbottabad that would have left everyone wondering whether bin Laden was really dead, we now know for sure that he’s gone for good. That’s an enormous moral victory for the United States. Additionally, if the U.S. had bombed the compound, the military would not have been able to gather any useful intelligence. Instead, the SEALs collected a treasure trove, increasing the odds that we can rid the world of many top-tier Qaida leaders and potentially bring this particular battle in the war on terrorism closer to an end.
Before the raid, critics were mocking Obama’s approach to foreign policy after an unnamed administration official told The New Yorker that the president was “leading from behind” in Libya because of the decline of U.S. influence and popularity in much of the world. Such criticisms will be harder to make now.
Once this national period of self-congratulations is over, however, we have to acknowledge that killing bin Laden did nothing to put Americans back to work or reduce the price of gasoline. That same NBC News poll showed just 37 percent of respondents approving of Obama’s handling of the economy, 5 points worse than his previous low. For all the crowing about 244,000 net new jobs in April, the unemployment rate increased by two-tenths of a percent, to 9 percent. When the two key monthly jobs numbers both improve, that’s a good sign. When they both get worse, that’s a bad sign. When they go in opposite directions, that’s inconclusive.
The interpretation of the recent jobs reports is something of a political Rorschach test. Those who are more sympathetic to Democrats point to the 244,000 new jobs, and those who lean Republican point to the rise in the unemployment rate. From my vantage point, a neutral observer can conclude that if the jobs situation is getting better, it isn’t getting much better—or both sets of numbers would be improving. The jobs report shows that we can’t chalk up the rise in unemployment to those who had given up seeking work suddenly looking for jobs again. The government’s unemployment report simply shows that fewer people are working.
As for prices at the pump, the national average for regular-grade gas has dropped just 1.6 cents in a week, hardly a relief for motorists. Even if it drops 50 cents over the next six months as some optimists suggest (and I doubt), it will still cost over 50 cents a gallon more than it did a year ago. The politics of the Middle East will have to stabilize a lot, and hundreds of millions of people from China, India, and other emerging economies will have to trade in their new vehicles for shoe leather and bicycles in order for the cost of a fill-up to return to levels that Americans have grown accustomed to. The president shouldn’t get too cocky.
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This article appears in the May 14, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.