The first polls show a bump in Barack Obama’s approval following the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Washington Post shows overall approval up to 56 percent, up nine points from April. There were also increases in other areas of the poll which were relevant to this news, such as a career high 69 percent on handling of terrorism. CNN also showed increased approval on the handling of terrorism but less of an increase in overall approval.
These results were widely expected but, as I noted yesterday, there is disagreement as to whether there will be long-term political benefits for Obama. One recent analogous situation was with George H. W. Bush who defeated Iraq following their invasion of Kuwait. Bush appeared unbeatable after the first Gulf War, but wound up losing, largely due to a weak economy. This does provide warning that if the economy does not rebound further Barack Obama could be in trouble, with many voters likely to vote for the party which created the economic crisis as opposed to voting for an incumbent.
There are also major differences between Bush and Obama. George H.W. Bush had a great military victory, but it was still a response to the invasion of another country. In contrast, Obama’s victory was over someone who had attacked the United States and was still seen as a threat to our country. George H.W. Bush beat soldiers who turned out to be unprepared to fight a major power but did not remove Saddam. The killing of bin Laden represents a more dramatic victory for Obama. Further victories over al Qaeda will further strengthen his position.
Whether this will all matter in 2012 depends upon how well the Democrats do in reshaping the political discussion. This victory represents a graphic demonstration that Democratic ideas on handling terrorism have been more successful than Republican ideas. Congressional Republicans blocked Bill Clinton’s attempts to fight al Qaeda. When the Clinton Administration passed on their plans for fighting al Qaeda to second Bush administration, the Bush administration ignored the plans. Even worse, George Bush ignored warnings of the 9/11 attack. In contrast, Bill Clinton’s government took the warnings of the planned Millennium terrorist attack seriously and prevented the attack.
After 9/11, George Bush continued to mishandle the efforts against al Qaeda. He used the attack as an excuse to attack Iraq, while failing to pay sufficient attention to Afghanistan. Bush had an excellent opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden at Tora Bora but failed to execute an effective attack. Bush mocked John Kerry for discussing the importance of intelligence and police work, as well as military action, in fighting terrorism. Repeatedly we have found that Kerry was right and Bush was wrong as it has been intelligence work and police action, not war or torture, which has provided us with the most significant accomplishments. Barack Obama continued with this approach and accomplished our greatest victory to date over al Qaeda.
Despite the overall failure of Republican ideas, as compared to Democratic ideas, on fighting terrorism, Republicans have claimed a superiority on national security issues. The killing of bin Laden, following repeated failings by Republicans in handling terrorism, provides evidence to the contrary. Republicans did not hesitate to play politics with terrorism after 9/11, and Democrats now must be willing to present their case. While a Republican such as George H. W. Bush had limited upside potential from a military victory, there is far more potential for Democrats to increase their support.
Another common Republican argument has been that Barack Obama has not been up to the job of being president. While the argument has been counter to reality all along, this demonstrates that Barack Obama is quite capable of handling the 3:00 a.m. call, or any other challenges of the presidency. Suddenly the 2008 candidate whose inexperience was an obstacle is now the most experienced of all the potential candidates in carrying out the duties of Commander in Chief.
There is another comparison to consider besides that of the first Gulf War. Jimmy Carter’s presidency was doomed after the failure of a raid to free the hostages in Iran. Success by Obama could very well have the opposite effect.