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Bin Laden's Death Helps Obama, but Economy Remains a Challenge Bin Laden's Death Helps Obama, but Economy Remains a Challenge

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Politics / POLITICS

Bin Laden's Death Helps Obama, but Economy Remains a Challenge

Will the euphoria inspired by Osama bin Laden's death carry President Obama to reelection next year?(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

May 2, 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden is likely to boost President Obama's popularity and help Democrats deflect the frequent Republican claim that they're soft on terrorism, though euphoria over the military operation may be short-lived in the face of lingering unemployment and rising gas prices.

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The death of one of the nation’s archenemies and the mastermind of the worst terrorist attacks on the U.S. gave even recession-weary Americans something to celebrate. And, after months of sagging poll numbers for their party's leader—Obama’s latest job-approval rating, according to Gallup’s daily tracking poll, was 46 percent—it gave Democrats a fresh boost of confidence.


“If there was ever a doubt that Obama was a strong commander in chief, this settles it,’’ crowed Jim Jordan, who is spearheading independent Democratic fundraising efforts outside the national party for the 2012 election. “The bump he’ll get won’t last forever, but it certainly will be helpful to his strength and leadership dimensions.’’

Even top Republican strategists acknowledged that the news is at least a short-term coup for the president. “All of the scripts and fundraising appeals on Obama on losing the war on terror are probably going in the trash bin today,’’ said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “You’ve got to pay your respects for this big win and let the president do his victory lap. Having said that, foreign policy can change overnight.’’

The avenging of 9/11 by a president whose middle name is Hussein and who has been dogged by false rumors that he is Muslim has significant implications for Democrats, who for decades have battled GOP insinuations that they are soft on national security—charges that only increased after al-Qaida's attack on American soil 10 years ago. "Republicans have a post-9/11 view of the world. And Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world,” Karl Rove, an adviser to then-president George W. Bush, said in 2006.

Perhaps most illustrative of the Democratic Party's vulnerability on military and national security issues is the fact that the party's 2004 nominee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., could not escape having his credentials questioned even though he is a decorated Vietnam veteran.

Obama—who had far less foreign-policy experience than the longtime Massachusetts senator—has similarly faced criticism of waffling on foreign policy. But his statement on Sunday night, and subsequent accounts of how the attack unfolded, have emphasized his heavy personal involvement in the planning of the attack, a military foreign-policy achievement that even his sharpest critics acknowledge, even as they predict that the bounce will be short-lived.

“It sounds like an incredible military operation and President Obama deserves credit, but I don’t think it measurably alters the debate on what we need to do to win the war in Afghanistan and effectively combat terrorism,’’ said Randy Scheunemann, who served as the foreign-policy adviser to Obama's 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “If we are not perceived as achieving our goals, a signal will be sent out a second time that a superpower has been defeated in Afghanistan.’’

And now, it is Republicans who are emphasizing economic issues as the center of next year's campaign. “I don’t think this election will be about national security and terrorism,” said Washington-based GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. He likened Obama's potential post-bin Laden surge to the one that President George H.W. Bush experienced after winning the Persian Gulf War—a surge that was soon swamped by economic doldrums.

“You could see a parallel there to Obama,” Mackowiak said.


Greg Mueller, another GOP consultant, said, “It’s May 2011. We’ve got a long, long way to go. I don’t think we’ll forget we got Osama, and the president will get credit for that. But as the public gets focused on the 2012 election, it will be much more focused on the economy and cultural and social issues.”

Bin Laden’s death is also a reminder that unexpected events can rapidly alter the tenor of a political campaign. McCain—widely respected for his military credentials—was caught flat-footed in September 2008 when Wall Street appeared headed for collapse.

President Obama’s potential Republican opponents were quick to celebrate bin Laden’s death, but most lavished credit on the U.S. military and intelligence community and gave scant, if any, mention of the president. Sarah Palin said, “God bless all the brave men and women in our military and our intelligence services.” Mitt Romney said, “Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president,” but didn’t mention Obama by name.

Mark Meckler, cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots, said he didn’t think any politician "deserves credit" for a military victory. 

"Taking such credit would be an insult to the courageous men and women in our armed forces who voluntarily put themselves in harm's way," he said. "Any credit given is due to them."

Among the few likely 2012 candidates to mention Obama by name were former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But both gave top billing to former President George W. Bush, who was frustrated in his effort to bring bin Laden to justice.

  • "In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush promised that America would bring Osama bin Laden to justice—and we did," Pawlenty said in a statement. "I want to congratulate America’s armed forces and President Obama for a job well done."
  • "I commend both President George W. Bush who led the campaign against our enemies through seven long years and President Obama who continued and intensified the campaign in both Afghanistan and Pakistan,'' said Gingrich, in his statement..

Unexpectedly generous with his praise was Donald Trump, whose repeated questioning of Obama's citizenship and the legitimacy of his administration led the president to take the extraordinary step last week of releasing his long-form birth certificate. "I want to personally congratulate President Obama and the men women of the Armed Forces for a job very well done,'' he said. "I am so proud to see Americans standing shoulder to shoulder, waving the American flag in celebration of this great victory.''

For Democrats, it was a day to celebrate—but just a day. For Republicans, it was a day to regroup and try to bring the focus back to the economy. Bottom line, says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who has closely studied presidents since Dwight Eisenhower (for whom he worked): Bin Laden's death puts Obama "in a very strong position for reelection"—but "there's still a lot of time, and there's no doubt the main issue will be the economy."

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