WASHINGTON – A T-shirt that says “It took Obama to Catch Osama” was already being sold on the streets of D.C. Monday morning. President Obama was riding high.
But as the country absorbed the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, Democrats and Republicans in the political class cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about the impact of the seismic event on the president’s reelection chances.
Revelations that Navy SEALS had shot and killed the al Qaeda leader in Pakistan on Sunday prompted initial elation from Obama supporters and groans from his critics. High-ranking Democratic operatives crowed to The Huffington Post about the long-term boost to their party’s foreign policy credentials, especially given the risky nature of Obama’s decision-making. One Congressional Democratic leadership aide said the strike “puts several more horse lengths between the president and the GOP field when it comes to seriousness and competence.”
However, while political professionals and pollsters said a short-term bump in the president’s approval ratings is certain, they also predicted that it would be a temporary boost.
“When these things happen presidents deserve those bumps. I think this will be a bump of 5 to 10 points for him,” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary to President George. W. Bush. “The question is how long will it last. And given how focused working Americans are on our economic troubles I don’t expect it to last very long.”
“I think this election is still largely an economic election,” Fleischer said.
A veteran Democratic operative close to the Obama White House who asked not to be identified said it is too far away from the November 2012 election to know how much it factors into whether Obama wins a second term.
“It is obviously a positive development for Obama and significant that it happened ahead of the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” she said. “But [it’s] crazy to assert 17 months out that this is some sort of game changer that assures Obama's reelection. If anything, this development is also a reminder of how volatile the world stage can be.”
Another Democratic consultant said that Obama’s bolstering his foreign policy credentials was a double-edged sword.
“It takes the security issue off the table for the Republicans. Having said that, it puts an unpredictable economy right in the spotlight,” he said.
The impact of the 1991 Gulf War was one precedent from 20 years ago on the minds of both Democrats and Republicans.
“[It’s] just like winning the Gulf War guaranteed George H.W. Bush reelection in 1992,” Gentry Collins, the former political director at the Republican National Committee.
Indeed, a chart by Public Opinion Strategies demonstrates that the 1991 Gulf War provided Bush with the third-biggest single event approval rating boost of any president going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, behind only Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
It took 41 weeks for H.W. Bush's approval rating to return to the where it was before the Gulf War, compared to 46 weeks for FDR after Pearl Harbor, and 105 weeks for George W. Bush after 9/11.
"I’m certainly not about to predict the length or size of the bump that Obama receives. But, it is unlikely to run through next year unless the economy improves dramatically as well," wrote Glen Bolger, a partner at POS, in an e-mail to colleagues that was passed on to the Huffington Post.
Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman and top White House aide to George W. Bush, said Obama will “get a temporary bump from reflected glory." But he added that in the grand scheme of things bin Laden's killing “won't be a factor in '12.”
Fleischer pointed out that after the 9/11 attacks, the bipartisan good will toward Bush that sent his approval rating from 51 percent up to 90 percent lasted only four months. Partisan rancor, he said, was reintroduced into the debate when Democrats went after Bush for connections to Enron founder Ken Lay following the energy and commodities company’s collapse.
The Huffington Post’s Mark Blumenthal has catalogued how the effects of positive major foreign policy events have worn off for most of the past several presidents.
Of course, any boost is better than none, and the White House challenge of sustaining momentum is preferable to having to generate it in the first place.
Dan Bartlett, a former top adviser to George W. Bush, said that Obama will be under pressure from the Democratic base to use the killing of bin Laden as a good reason to accelerate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afganistan and Iraq.
“If you want to pivot in Afghanistan this summer and reduce troops, what better way than to use this as further evidence of a degraded AQ network. I have to think the intel scoop will yield more big fish in the coming months,” Bartlett said. “Or you can demonstrate to the public that patience will yield results and now is not the time to let up.”
Bartlett predicted that Democrats will start “cranking up the heat” on Obama to remove U.S. troops from the two combat zones.
One Republican, veteran consultant Scott Reed, said bin Laden’s death was a “bigger than big” boon for Obama’s poltical prospects, but saw a silver lining in the timing.
“[The] GOP should just be glad a presidential candidate is not announcing today!” Reed said.