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Bin Laden’s Death: A Political Turning Point?

It has only been little more than a month since the daring raid that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, but already the impact of that successful mission on the public’s evaluation of President Obama is beginning to recede, replaced once again by concerns regarding the stalled economy. This is not unexpected, as I explain below, but it does belie the more optimistic predictions by some pundits in the immediate aftermath of Bin Laden’s death that it was a potential turning point not just in the War on Terror, but for Obama’s presidency as well.  Thus Jon Alter, while acknowledging that the long-term impact of Bin Laden’s killing remained uncertain, wrote, “But this feels like a turning point, if not for the world then at least for our sense of ourselves.” Comparing the event to the killing of Japanese fleet admiral Isoroku Yamamoto during World War II, he concluded his column on a hopeful note, “[W]e should see the veil of fear and bitterness that has afflicted us for the last decade begin to lift. The old can-do competence that beat the Depression and won World War II isn’t dead yet. Happier days may be here again.” Other pundits noted that Obama’s cool-headed decision to go ahead with the mission put to rest any idea that he was not a strong leader. As the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne put it: “Barack Obama is not the man many Americans thought he was. This sudden realization has transformed American politics. The sheer audacity of the successful operation against Osama Bin Laden has forced Obama’s friends and foes alike to reassess what they make of a chief executive who defies easy categorization and reveals less about himself than politicians are typically drawn to do. He has now proved that he can be bold at an operational level, even as he remains cautious at a philosophical level. His proclivity to gather facts and weigh alternatives does not lead automatically, in the venerable phrase, to the paralysis of analysis. It can also end in daring action tempered by prudence … .”

To support these optimistic projections, pundits cited the huge jump in Obama’s public approval in polls taken after Bin Laden’s death; for example, a Washington Post/ABC poll in May gave Obama 56 percent approval – a figure nine points higher than the previous month’s rate, and the highest approval rating for Obama since 2009. The WaPo poll also indicated a boost in approval of Obama’s handling of the Afghan war to 60 percent, and on terrorism, where Obama recorded “a career high of 69 percent”.  Other polls indicated similar jumps in Obama’s public standing.

These dramatically higher approval ratings led many commentators to suggest that Bin Laden’s death provided an opportunity for Obama to reframe or even reverse the U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan. Indeed, some pundits suggested that Obama should campaign for reelection as a “foreign policy” president. By taking a page from George Bush’s 2004 campaign playbook, they argued, Obama could turn long-held perceptions of Democrats as weak on foreign policy on their head, as well as capitalizing on the lack of foreign policy experience among most of his Republican rivals.

These recommendations, however, were based on overly rosy expectations. Indeed, (as my unfortunate students will recall me telling them) the impact of Bin Laden’s death on Obama’s presidency was never likely to be as large as his supporters hoped. Consider Obama’s approval ratings. The latest RealClear Politics composite poll indicates that Obama’s approval/disapproval figure stands at 47.6% /46.6%, down from the post-Bin Laden high in the May 26 composite poll of 52.5/42.6%.  The current rating almost exactly matches Obama’s popularity in the polls taken immediately before the Bin Laden assassination, indicating that the effect of his killing on popular sentiments has largely dissipated. (See also the Pollster.com poll, which is less sensitive to more recent surveys and thus suggests a higher approval rating for Obama.)  The decline from the high of 10% to today’s 1% in Obama’s approval-disapproval gap should surprise no one.  Previous studies, such as one by Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley, have found that so-called “rally events” involving the use of American military force boost a president’s popularity, on average, by about 6% in the first month and by approximately 5% over four months. By the fifth month after the rally event, the effect typically has disappeared. If anything, then, the Bin Laden “bounce” has proved even more transitory than the historically “average” rally event.

Nor does it appear that Bin Laden’s death has led to a significant reframing of the Afghan war. Defense Secretary Gates recently returned from a tour of Afghanistan to recommend against deep cuts in the U.S. military involvement there, a recommendation that General David Petraeus is expect to endorse when meeting with Obama prior to the July 1 troop draw-down deadline.  Meanwhile, CIA director and soon-to-be Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently testified before Congress that the Iraqi government is, not surprisingly, going to ask the U.S. to extend its military stay in that country.  Under an agreement first negotiated by George W. Bush, Obama has pledged to remove the roughly 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of this year, but as I have noted many times in previous posts, this will almost certainly not happen.

My point here is not to diminish the substantive impact of Obama’s bold decision to order the strike on Bin Laden.  Beyond the satisfaction of killing the architect of the 9-11 attacks, it is quite possible that the intelligence gathered in the aftermath of the Bin Laden raid will – and perhaps already has – provide[d] a significant boost to the War on Terror.  Instead, I want to take issue with those who suggest that Bin Laden’s assassination significantly altered the political context of Obama’s presidency. This was unlikely for two reasons. To begin, political science studies show that, rally events notwithstanding, on average, extended U.S. military involvement overseas has negative effects on a president’s domestic standing (see, for example, the Brace and Hinckley study).  As evidence, witness the slow decline in George Bush’s popularity after the initial boost he received from 9-11 – a decline attributable in part to growing dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and the lack of progress in Afghanistan.  (This is partly why I have long argued that presidents are not more powerful in the foreign policy realm, a point I will take up in a separate post.)

More importantly, all signs indicate that the overriding issue driving the 2012 election will be voters’ perceptions regarding job growth and the economy.  Campaigning as a “foreign policy” president will thus hurt Obama in two respects: it will remind voters that we remain deeply involved in two largely unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will suggest that he is not sufficiently focused on the fundamental issue of concern to most Americans.

Bin Laden is dead. So too should be any notion that his death will reshape the political contours of Obama’s presidency.