Recent Terrorist Threats and the Lack of an Obama Rally

Conventional wisdom tells us that the country rallies behind the sitting president when its national security is threatened; however, of late, President Obama's approval rating has remained fairly flat.
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The following article was written by Jennifer L. Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister.

Throughout most of his presidency, public support for George W. Bush increased in conjunction with the terror threat level. Conventional wisdom tells us that the public rallies behind the sitting president when its national security is perceivably threatened. Yet, following the recent Christmas Day bombing attempt, approval ratings for President Barack Obama have remained fairly flat. Is this lukewarm response to our current president symptomatic of public apathy toward terrorism?

A Gallup poll conducted in the first half of December reported that only 39 percent of the public was worried or very worried about being victimized by terrorism. If the public is no longer capable of being frightened by terrorism, then this could explain why we did not witness a traditional "rally 'round the flag" in the aftermath of the Detroit incident.

This explanation doesn't pass muster. News coverage of terrorism in recent days has reached tsunami proportions and public reaction to the matter has been substantial. A new online poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion reveals that 81% of the U.S. public supports the use of full body scans for all passengers on international flights. It seems unlikely that citizens would show a renewed willingness to trade civil liberties for greater security if they were not significantly concerned about terrorism.

If lack of fear does not explain Obama's flat approval ratings, then what does? Our research points instead to an important, disadvantageous attribute that President Obama carries into any terror threat situation: his Democrat party label.

President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani saw their approval ratings soar following 9/11. In our book, Democracy at Risk, we document numerous ways that the public shifted their evaluations of President Bush in a favorable direction when they were presented with information about the possibility of another terrorist attack.

Political science has several well-regarded theories that converge to predict a strong political advantage to sitting Republicans in times of terrorist threat. According to one theory, when the U.S. faces a national security threat, the public rallies around the flag, or the sitting incumbent. Another theory suggests that the two parties are perceived to have different competencies in handling issues, with Republicans "owning" the issue of national security.

Therefore, when we have a president who is both an incumbent and a Republican, we expect exactly the kind of reaction that President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani received after 9/11 - a tremendous out-pouring of public support.

In a series of laboratory experiments we conducted years out from 9/11, we found that when individuals were presented with news about potential terrorist threats, their support for George W. Bush increased. These effects were not limited to expressions of general support. Rather, those threatened by terrorism perceived Bush to be more charismatic and as a stronger leader compared to participants who were not similarly threatened.

This brings us back to our original question: Why was there no rally behind Barack Obama? The answer lies in his party affiliation.

At the end of 2008, we conducted a national internet study in which we asked participants to evaluate candidates in a hypothetical gubernatorial race. A sub-set of participants read a news article describing a context of high terror threat and some of these individuals were told that the election featured a Republican Incumbent against a Democratic Challenger, while others were told the race pitted a Democratic Incumbent against a Republican Challenger. All other information across the articles was the same.

The Democratic Incumbent was evaluated in a worse light than the Republican Incumbent. Like the worse-off fictional candidate in our study, President Obama is an incumbent, a characteristic that should lead to a rally effect, but is also a member of the Democratic Party, the party not perceived as most capable on national security issues. These dueling characteristics compete and largely cancel each other out in the public's mind, leading to the muted response by the public that we have seen in recent weeks.

If President Obama is disappointed by the fact that the terrorist threat does not give him the same image boost that it bestows on sitting Republicans, he can take solace in the fact that he is a sitting executive. In our study, the worst of all possible worlds belonged to our fictional Democratic Challenger, who was not only disadvantaged by an affiliation with the party deemed less capable of handling terrorism but also did not have the benefit of occupying the seat during the threat.

You can bet that savvy Democrats looking to challenge sitting Republicans in the next round of elections are hoping that the issue of terrorism soon fades from the spotlight. On the other side of the aisle, we can expect to see some strategic actors in the Republican Party try to keep the issue of terrorism center stage as we move toward the November elections.

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